Active Learning: A Teacher's Guide

What is Active Learning?

The term active learning encompasses a wide variety of classroom activities. But what does it mean? It's important to start with an active learning definition that offers you a clear sense of the process. One easy way to understand active learning is to compare it to its opposite: passive learning. If you've ever sat through a lecture, then you're familiar with this approach. In passive learning, teachers are seen as the source of knowledge and understanding. By contrast, in an active learning classroom, teachers guide students as they construct their own knowledge and understanding. Here, the focus is centered on students as they take an active and engaged role in learning.

Students learn more when learning is active. In fact, education research is full of studies that compare active learning strategies to traditional, passive, lecture-focused learning. Despite the fact that the active strategies in these studies vary greatly from one another, they all have one thing in common. Students in classrooms with an active learning approach outperform students receiving traditional (passive) instruction.

The whole idea of a flipped classroom is based on active learning. At home, video lectures and readings introduce the basic facts. In the classroom, students can then assemble those basic facts into real understanding with the guidance of their teacher. Since students learn more when learning is active, flipped classrooms reserve class time for the projects, inquiries, discussions, and other activities that actively engage students.

Active Learning Strategies

There are many different ways to use active learning strategies in the classroom. Teachers can start a discussion to make sure students take ownership over their own participation and talk through new ideas and skills with peers. Think-pair-share is a great strategy in which students first think about what they want to say or learn, pair with a partner to discuss, and only then share with the whole group.

Kinesthetic learning is another active learning strategy that can be used in the classroom. Kinesthetic learners are those students who learn by moving their bodies and touching manipulatives. To involve movement, teachers can have students catch a ball to answer a question, perform a skit, walk around the room during partner discussions, and so on.

Overall, using active learning strategies is one of the most effective ways to create a challenging learning environment where all students are motivated to do their best to succeed.

Why Use Active Learning?

There are many different reasons to use active learning strategies including:

  • Active learning in the classroom ensures that each student has a voice in their own learning, thus maximizing student engagement over the course of the school day.
  • Examples of active learning from a variety of classrooms show that students who are exposed to active learning strategies feel like they know themselves better as learners and thinkers. These students are then better equipped to extend their own learning independently over the course of their education.
  • Students who have learned to be more active in class are also more prepared to learn on the job, to pursue the ideas and questions that matter to them, and to feel engaged and motivated during the time they spend in school.

The Challenges of Active Learning

One main challenge with active learning is controlling the pace of the classroom. Every student in a classroom is different, and active learning activities must be differentiated thoughtfully so that each student can proceed through material at their own pace. Further, active learning should provide the right amount of stimulation to keep students engaged without distracting them from the intent of the lesson.

Active learning works best if there are well-articulated goals in mind. Clear objectives help teachers construct and facilitate activities that allow students to achieve mastery while also learning how to participate in groups and in their own learning. Though there are challenges with active learning, they can certainly be overcome with thoughtful planning.

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