Active Learning

What is the difference between Learning and Active Learning? Isn’t ALL learning active learning? No!!!

Imagine yourself in a classroom, one that if you are my age you’ve experienced many times over in middle or more likely high school or even college.  You are sitting upright in your seat, likely a hard wooden or plastic seat attached to the desk portion, inseparable with a lovely metal basket attached underneath so you can fit whatever notebook or book you need on the little desk part.

You and your classmates are sitting in neat rows facing the front of the room, where most likely there is an expansive wall sized chalk board.  The teacher is likely up there and somewhere on the board it might say the date or the name of the class and the teacher’s name, in case you somehow forgot it.  Maybe, if you have a more progressive teacher, on the chalkboard might be an objective for the day or an outline of what today’s classwork might be about. Maybe it says “Algebra I, Mr. Smith, pp.35 odd questions 1 – 25”. Or maybe it says “Psychology, Mrs. Smith, Test on Thursday Chapters 5 & 6”. Or, in more modern times it may read “English 11, What are five examples of symbolism in chapters 4 and 5?”

Reflect on those classes.  Did you learn? Well, you may have. But did you learn all that you could learn? Did you learn the information to retain it, to use it, to understand it. Did you ENJOY learning?

Now, consider this.  You are sitting in your classroom. But, this time there are tables in a U-shape.  Students are sitting in cushioned chairs at these tables, two people to a table.  At one end of the classroom is a Promethean board (a white board interactive board that acts as a white board, a computer screen, a projector screen, and a touch screen). In the center of the u-shape arrangement of tables are smaller tables with three-dimensional sculptures of various shapes.  Hanging from the ceiling are a series of mobiles that other students have made.  Along one wall are tables with computers and ipads. The class bell rings. You look to the white board where a projector has video swimming across the screen with words like “triangle” and “trapezoid” and shapes rotate in 3-D on the screen. The teacher allows this to play for a few minutes.  Then a question comes across the whiteboard.  The teacher reads the question “What properties of a Trapezoid and a Triangle are similar?” She asks everyone to reach for their smart phones and text their answers to a listed number on the board. Within seconds results are displayed on the board.  The teacher instructs you to put away your phones and asks everyone to turn to their partner to discuss the answers that the class shared.  She asks you to write down any that you disagree with and why.  After 3 minutes, the teacher asks for volunteers to share their thoughts and for the class to discuss their findings. She then introduces a short you tube video showing triangles and trapezoid in nature. Homework she says is to log onto the classroom blog and post a comment about today’s lesson, including at least one thing you learned.

Did you learn during this class?  Were you ENGAGED in your learning? Did you remember the information you learned?  What did you learn? What, in addition to the right-there curriculum, did you learn? Hmmmm…communication? technology? teamwork? collaboration? problem solving? and of course geometry.

You were involved in ACTIVE LEARNING.  Not just learning. And, in all likelihood, you probably ENJOYED learning!

Active Learning is learning “that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. (*Bonwell, C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: George Washington University, p. 2)

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987)

Leave a comment


  1. Learner engagement is what makes learning meaningful and also makes teaching and learning fun!

  2. dgarcia30

     /  September 14, 2012

    That was a very interesting description, a big difference.

  3. Wendy – thought I posted a comment, but don’t see it so will try again…

    Your description was so vivid, you brought me right back to 6th grade where we sat in hard wood seats, alphabetically, face forward with most often just a view of the teachers butt (who always stood facing the chalkboard!).


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