Active Learning

What is Active Learning?

‘Active learning’ (AL) is a vital method to improve the quality of learning. In a school context, AL essentially makes the student – as opposed to teacher – the centre of the learning experience. Thus, the requirement of the learner is more than just to listen; they must be actively engaged and ‘do’ during the learning process.

Responsibility of effort and role

Effort is a key responsibility the student must take in AL. This is paramount as increased effort creates superior neuronal connections, and therefore, improved learning!

However, the teacher’s role is not devoid of responsibility. For instance, in contrast to traditional teacher centric pedagogy (e.g. lecturing), the teacher’s role in AL is to engineer and design suitable activities incentivising autonomy and self-control in the learning process. Therefore, the teacher’s role becomes more about facilitating the student learning process, as opposed to only imparting information.

The key ingredients of active learning

We know that effort is critical, but what are the specific actions we can take?

Below, I have articulated three major ingredients of AL from the student’s perspective (given AL is a student-centred approach). However, these tips can be equally useful for teachers seeking to encourage or reinforce these principles.

Prior knowledge – When encountering new information, familiarising yourself with the subject matter before the lesson is an effective tactic to prime your brain to the relevant content. Reading the syllabus in advance of the lesson, or perhaps reviewing prescribed relevant readings is a great starting point. If this information is not at your disposal, then taking the initiative to find out what will be covered ahead of class and simply doing your own self-directed reading will still be helpful.

Whilst reading, ask yourself some reflective questions (e.g. How does this relate to concepts I am already familiar with? What do I need to find out more about?) to enhance your preparation.

Spending as little as 10 minutes building your prior knowledge will make a huge difference to subsequent learning; you’re creating the optimal environment for those neuronal connections to occur!

Concentration – There is no magic bullet to ensure that you concentrate fully during the lesson. However, there are a several tips that will improve your chances of concentration.

Finding value – Sometimes it can be difficult to relate to and understand the value of the content being taught. However, if you can successfully reflect on and see great personal ‘value’ in the content (above and beyond helping you to fulfil learning objectives), it will be more meaningful to you. For example, learning to speak Italian may not be as exciting as you first hoped. However, you may change this view should you reflect on the prospect of living in Italy for 3 months later in life. All of a sudden, you might be inclined to concentrate more in class!

Actively engage – Given active learning is about doing, consider the ways you can more actively involve yourself during the lesson. This could include for e.g, asking questions, clarifying understanding, sharing reflections and discussion with other students.

Don`t write word for word – Note taking is a huge topic in itself, but I’ll keep it succinct for the purposes of this section. Refrain from writing things ‘word for word’ unless of course it is required (i.e. like with copying formulae or quotes). Transcribing information in your own words will force you to think more critically about (and learn) the information.

Take a deliberate and incremental approach – Knowledge is most effectively built in steps or blocks; especially upon encountering novel and challenging content. It starts (as previously described) with familiarising yourself with relevant background information.

Additionally, it is important to place careful reflection and consideration of the essential basics underpinning the material. Spending too little time on the basics (perhaps because of a desire to master the material too soon) is a common mistake. Moving on too quick can result in wasted time and effort on re-work. Patience is often needed in learning; especially regarding difficult content. It may be helpful to remind yourself to ‘go slow to go fast’ (i.e. so in the long term you progress quickly because you spend less time on re-work)!

Hopefully this article gives you an insight into the practical actions you can take to ensure you’re adopting an active approach to learning.

Give them a try and see how you go!

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