What is active learning?

As a child, I struggled in school. Oftentimes, teachers taught using worksheets and silent, passive observation from myself and my peers. I realized early on that this was just not a great way for me to learn. I knew I was “surface learning”, but when it came to subjects that interested me and I researched myself, I somehow gained a much deeper understanding of the subject matter. I began to apply my “fun subject” methods to my “not-as-fun” subjects as I got older. I saw huge changes: math concepts didn’t seem as foreign, even with dyscalculia, and new concepts across a broad range of subjects began to make sense. What was I doing differently from my teachers? Perhaps this was an anomaly, I thought. But..what if it’s not?

As it turns out, the research supported what I learned as a child and teen. In 2013, the term ‘deeper learning’ was adopted by the Hewlett Foundation to describe the concern that America’s schools are failing to prepare learners adequately to overcome tomorrow’s economic, technological, and societal challenges. After gathering leaders of the education community to discuss these issues, the Hewlett Foundation identified six outcomes or abilities associated with deeper learning:

  • Master core academic content
  • Think critically and solve complex problems
  • Work collaboratively
  • Communicate effectively
  • Learn how to learn
  • Develop academic mindsets

What are the main differences between deeper and surface learning?


What, exactly, is active learning, and how do we as Parent-Educators facilitate Active Learning?

Active learning was first defined by Bonwell and Eison (1991) as “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. Growing from developments in adult, cognitive, and educational research, active learning responds to traditional lecture formats with more engaged activities that invite students to participate in learning, including developing conceptual awareness, applying knowledge through experience, and transferring skills across contexts. Active learning helps students to ascend Bloom’s Taxonomy from remembering and understanding to analyzing and creating.

Active learning may be distilled into two kinds of activities:

  • Doing things: Activities like discussion, idea mapping, and debate require students to construct knowledge through higher order thinking (such as recalling, applying, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, and verbalizing concepts). This contrasts knowledge passively transmitted to students solely via listening, transcribing, memorizing, and reading.
  • Thinking about the things [students] are doing: Although not always explicitly noted in active learning literature, metacognition—students’ thinking about their own learning—promotes active learning by acquainting students with their own learning habits. Metacognition promotes students’ ability to self-assess and self-regulate themselves as learners. Metacognition often happens through student feedback methods, which open up student-instructor dialogue about teaching and learning methods.

What works in my classroom:

My classes are almost all virtual (online using Canvas and Zoom). For my classes, I really try to consider what my students already like when planning. If your child enjoys Pokemon, there’s no reason we can’t learn word problems with Pikachu. Learners would also be encouraged to create these word problems to share with the class. I also employ many of the strategies below.

  • Large-Group Discussion – Students discuss a topic in class based on a reading, video, or problem. The instructor may prepare a list of questions to facilitate discussion.
  • Sequence reconstruction – Instructor gives students jumbled steps in a process, and asks them to work together to reconstruct the proper sequence.
  • Error identification – Instructor provides statements, readings, proofs, or other material that contains errors. Students must find and correct the errors.
  • Concept map – Students are provided with a list of terms and must arrange the terms on paper, drawing arrows between related concepts and labeling each arrow to explain the relationship. Alternatively, students can use software like MindMeister or bubbl.us to project their maps on a screen or share with the class.
  • Categorizing grids – Instructor gives students several important categories and a list of scrambled terms, images, equations, or other items. Students sort the terms into the correct categories.
  • Interactive Lecture – Break up the lecture at least once per class for an activity that lets all students work directly with the material.
  • Active Review Sessions – Pose a question which students work on in groups or individually. Students are asked to show their responses to the class and discuss any differences.
  • Inquiry Learning – Instructor presents a major concept and then asks students to make observations, pose hypotheses, and speculate on conclusions.
  • Brainstorming – Instructor provides a topic or problem and then asks for student input. After a few minutes, the instructor asks for responses and records them on the board.
  • Role Playing – Students use dramatic techniques to get a better idea of the concepts and theories being discussed. They might stage dialogue in a case study, act out a scene in a literature class, produce a mock debate of a historic issue, or present (within a safe context) problematic social responses requiring discussion.
  • Jigsaw Discussion – Students are divided into small groups that discuss different but related topics. Students then shuffle to create new groups with one student from each of the original groups. In these new groups, each student is responsible for sharing key aspects of their original discussion. The second group must synthesize and use all of the ideas from the first set of discussions in order to complete a new or more advanced task.
  • Learning Goals – Students create a list of skills and topics they would like to cover. They then choose the learning targets for these topics.

You’ll see these strategies and more used in my classroom. Learners are expected to engage, actively, in my classes…education is not about rote memorization. Rather, education is truly an enlightening experience that involves whole-body, whole brain learning.


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