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9 benefits of active learning (and why your college should try it)

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on April 16, 2020
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When you were a teenager, did you take driving lessons? You likely started in a classroom, learning the rules of the road or the theory behind switching gears. Maybe you could ace every test and nail every question. But when you got behind the wheel of the car – it was a whole new ball game.

Whether it’s your first car or first job, you’ve certainly felt the gap between what’s learned by reading or listening and what’s learned by doing. That’s where active learning comes in. The concept can be quite broadly defined – in 1991, Bonwell and Eison described it as “anything that involves students doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” But at its core, active learning puts students at the center and values meaningful creating and collaborating over passively consuming.

Another way to put it? During class time, ask yourself who’s working the hardest. If it’s you and not the students, then it might be time to try active learning.

Though many college and university classes still look much like they did 20 years ago, professors who are changing things up are reporting strong results. Here are 9 reasons to give active learning a chance:

Students working together in an active learning classroom

1. Develops collaborative skills

Collaboration is a pillar of most active learning approaches. In increasingly team-oriented workplaces, students whose only experience is with essay writing and exams will find themselves at a disadvantage. By working together in breakout groups, students develop the abilities they’ll need to collaborate in the workforce.

2. Encourages risk taking

Students may initially resist the move to active learning – after all, it’s easy to sit in class and take notes (or zone out) until the talking is done. Active learning pulls students out of their comfort zone by creating an environment where risk taking is encouraged. As they get more comfortable sharing their thoughts, defending their conclusions and building on each other’s ideas, they’ll gain confidence and self-possession.

3. Requires student preparation

During your college days, there were likely courses that didn’t require much day-to-day effort beyond simply showing up to class. You could be tired or disengaged, and the prof likely didn’t notice – especially if you hid in the back rows of the lecture hall. And now with many classes partially or fully online, it’s even easier to tune out. But in an active learning classroom, no one’s invisible. It’s immediately apparent when students haven’t taken the time to prepare, so there’s greater motivation to show up – in mind and body.

4. Increases engagement

Students who are actively learning are actively engaged. Whether solving a problem, debating an issue or researching a concept, they are processing ideas and forging deeper understanding. (And they’re much less likely to be multitasking on a Zoom or Google Meet session.) If you’re looking for new ideas to get your students thinking, try these quick active learning activities.

Student engaged in active learning remotely

5. Improves critical thinking

In a world where fake news has become part of our daily discourse, the ability to identify a legitimate source or spot a faulty argument is only becoming more important. Active learning shifts the focus of learning – from passively (and possibly unquestioningly) digesting information to being accountable for actively engaging with sources and perspectives. And when students share ideas, they learn to build stronger arguments, challenge presumptions and recognize leaps of logic.

6. Increases retention

According to Dale’s Cone of Experience, students remember about 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, but 90% of what they do. Active learning classrooms are, well, more active. Students are often applying their ideas, working on collaborative projects or using approaches like design thinking or the agile process to solidify their learning.

Student working on an active learning project while distanced

7. Makes tech more powerful

In contrast to lecture halls, which often have displays that students don’t get to use and audio systems that only pick up a presenter’s voice, many active learning classrooms are filled with tools and systems that put students at the center. Get more details on technology and other essential items you can add to your active learning space with this active learning space checklist.

8. Sparks creative thinking

Creativity is one of the key skills needed for the workplace of the future and one of the hardest to teach using traditional methods. Active learning helps students understand that creativity goes beyond the Eureka moment – it develops with effort and hard work. With lots of practice flexing their creative muscles, students also see how both individual reflection and collaborative exchange can lead to better ideas and more novel solutions to problems.

9. Fosters real problem solving

The ability to solve complex problems was called out by the World Economic Forum in 2015 as the most important skill needed for future jobs. Since then, as COVID-19 changed the world faster than could have seemed possible, this has only gotten more crucial. Students in active learning classrooms understand that no one has all the answers, so it’s up to them to figure them out.


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Editor’s note: This post was originally published October 2018 and has been updated.

Topics: Higher Education Active Learning Hybrid Learning