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Active Learning 
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I.  Definition of Training Piece

  1. Purpose for Instructor

    Some courses lend themselves better to the lecture method of teaching, while other courses lend themselves better to "active learning," or "student-centered learning." "Problem-based learning" is still another pedagogical strategy with the same goal. As an instructor begins to determine the materials and methods for a particular course, he or she asks the question, "Which is the best way to have students learn." Would it be better and easier to just look in the text book and put together a lecture on the topic and then have some tradition exercises for students, or would it be better to let the student facilitate his/her own learning, and thereby have the tools for life-long learning. Because students have different ways of learning, because students have different quadrants that make up the whole brain model, it becomes important to find varying techniques for students to use in the classroom. Critical thinking is essential to functioning in a highly technical society. This module will use terms such as active learning, student-centered learning, and problem-based learning. All come under the large umbrella of active learning, but student-centered learning and problem-based learning are specific tools used to achieve active learning. By the end of this module, you will be able to define active learning/student-centered learning, have some idea of the research that supports active learning/student-centered learning, and have one activity , which can be adapted for use in any classroom.

  2. Material Covered

    This content module will introduce you to the concept of Student-Centered Learning which includes tools from the Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) philosophy of Deming used in industry as well as the concept of active learning which has changed education from the process of transmission to the process of students having the opportunity to clarify, question, apply and process their own knowledge. There will be some information about the research, resources, and activities to implement these concepts in your classes.

II.  Foundation

  1. Definition of Concept and Theory

    People learn in many different ways, but pouring knowledge into empty vessels does not allow for problem-solving and critical thinking which are required for individuals to be successful in society. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, among the highest personal qualities sought by employers are "teamwork skills" and "analytical/problem solving skills." Actively engaging students in the learning process, including group work and problem solving activities, or case studies, improves critical thinking skills and teamwork skills. Active learning shifts to a paradigm which changes where learning necessitates self assessment which is also becoming a major requirement for colleges and secondary education (Barr and Tagg).

    While active learning simply indicates students participating in their education, student-centered learning, according to David Langford, comes under the umbrella of active learning and uses some of the tools which have been employed in CQI. All of the tools require teamwork as the teacher remains the facilitator. Some of the tools include the StoryBoard, Brainstorming, a Competency Matrix, the Nominal Group Technique, and the Affinity Diagram. The Affinity Diagram, which will be discussed in the Student Exercise section of this module, is an interactive data collection method, which allows groups of people to identify and process large quantities of ideas in a very short time frame. Active learning engages students in the learning process and may not need any specific "tool," although a simple paired activity can be adapted to almost any content area.

  2. Summary of Relevant Research

    This module explores the philosophy of active learning and student-centered learning. There is a great body of research on both these techniques. Myron Tribus, of Ford Motor Company, connected process of teamwork in a major automobile company to that of classroom technique in several papers. " The Application of Quality Management Principles in Education," (1994) and "When Quality Goes to School, What Do Leaders Do to Put It to Work?" (1994) which were distributed at a Ford Motor Company Continuous Quality Improvement Symposium held in Dearborn, MI in September, 1994. His message was to find a new paradigm for the delivery of instruction, changing from teacher-centered to student-centered learning. Other research can be traced back through the inquiry training of John Dewey. Problem-solving skills need to go beyond typical problem solving which tends to be situation specific with well-defined problem parameters that lead to predetermined outcomes with one correct answer. Unfortunately, research indicates, these students are not adequately prepared when they encounter problems in which they need to transfer their learning to new domains, a skill needed to function in society (Reich, R. (1990). Redefining good education: Preparing students for tomorrow. In S.B. Bacharach(ed.) Education reform: Making sense of it all. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.)

    Other research indicates that if we as teachers talk less, students learn more. Studies by K.L. Ruhl and others clearly suggests that we have a requirement to include short, active-learning activities into our lectures.

III.  Benefits

  1. Instructor

    The instructor becomes a facilitator and while he/she is still responsible for guiding the overall classroom environment, the learning paradigm of active/student-centered learning, ends the instructor's privileged position. As teachers, our true aim is to help students continue life-long learners; if we continue to treat students as vessels who need all the information the teacher can give them, we are not helping students to take personal responsibility for their own learning.

  2. Student

    The students make a significant contribution to their own learning in terms of its pace, direction, objectives, and process. Through active learning, students can begin to accept personal responsibility, take specific actions toward becoming proficient in the course, being to master self-management, and certainly increase their ability to problem solve and work with other individuals in teams. The student will be better prepared to meet the needs of the greater society in which they will function.

IV.  Implementation

  1. Exploration Exercises for Instructor

    In order for a teacher to explore the benefits of active learning and more specifically student-centered learning, one might experiment with two classes. In one class, the teacher would present material in straight lecture format and in another class, set the exercise up for student-centered learning or problem-based learning (using a case study). At the end of the lecture/activity, the teacher would ask students to evaluate not only what they learned, but how they learned. One technique for asking students how they learned is to distribute 3X5 cards and ask them to, anonymously, write "What Worked" and "What Didn't Work" in this particular lecture or exercise. The response in each class will help clarify how students saw themselves learning.

  2. Student Exercises

    The purpose of the affinity diagram is to allow a team of students to creatively generate a large number of ideas/issues about a topic and then to organize and summarize the natural groupings among them in a non-judgmental process. This exercise is used to generate and organize ideas for a paper, a debate, or even material in a chapter of a textbook the students were assigned for reading.

The Affinity Diagram

The process:
Have students form teams. There are various ways to form them; one technique is to have students count off for the number of teams wanted in a class. All the ones go together, all the twos, etc.

  1. A topic is chosen and clearly stated, such as: What do we need to know concerning organic farming in our environment today?
  2. Each team is given lots of sticky notes. All team members individually brainstorm ideas relating to the stated topic or question.
  3. As brainstorming takes place, individuals silently write each idea on a 3 x 3 sticky note.
  4. Team members randomly place their sticky notes, with one idea on a note, in the middle of the table or on a smooth surface such as a wall or flip chart.
  5. Silently, as a group, the team places ideas in categories.
  6. Finally, when the team members have moved the categories around until everyone feels comfortable with the categories, a header or topic describing the category if placed at the top of each column. The diagram looks as follows:

    •      • 
    ••     •• 
    ••     •• 
    ••     ••

    Each major heading does not have to have the same amount of subheadings. At this point, students can write an organized response to the question or divide the topics so that each member of the team can research the issue. As mentioned earlier, this exercise is excellent for organizing material for a writing assignment, a formal research paper, or even outlining a chapter in a textbook which was assigned. It is important to help students use the same technique when they work alone on a project. Transferability of the technique is essential.

C.  Skill Connections

  1. Critical Thinking: Engaging students in the learning process helps them develop critical thinking skills that are invaluable to their success as students and employees. For specific exercises that help build and encourage critical thinking skills, visit the Critical Thinking Module.
  2. Study Skills Coaching: Students who experience active learning methods not only develop a deeper understanding of the content but also leave with knowledge of the process of learning, knowledge that they can apply to other learning situations. It is also important to assist students to understand the process of studying, so they can retain the content information and develop life-long study habits that will assist them when they face challenging material. For more information on active learning strategies for studying, visit the Study Skills Coaching Module. If you teach math or study skills, you might also want to visit the Math Study Skills Module.

V.  Frequently asked questions

Q: What happens when students feel that other members of the team are not contributing to the efforts of the group?
A: For this exercise, every student must fill out individual sticky notes to be placed on the table or board. As the facilitator, the teacher works with each group to see that everyone is doing that step. As students place their topics in the central location, each student must agree to the final arrangement of the topics and titles of the subtopics; the teacher as the facilitator can use group feedback at the end to assure group participation. The 3X5 card mentioned earlier is a good technique to see if everyone participated and how he/she felt about participating. (What Worked? What Didn't Work?)

Q: How can you assure that students will use this technique when working on their own?
A: You can provide sticky notes for the students as they begin their work on an individual assignment and let them do the generating and organizing for the assignment in the class hour while you facilitate. Also, even though students are writing their own papers on their own topics, or are preparing their own outlines, or speeches, they can help one another if a community has been established through previous teamwork.

VI.  Helpful Resources
This site gives some summaries on research on active learning.
This site is a teacher's handbook for active learning ideas.
This site has examples of active learning techniques.
This site has examples of student-centered learning techniques and classroom activities.

Workshop Information to attend a workshop on this topic or bring one to your campus, visit this site or call Faculty Training at (800) 856-5727.

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