Active learning can conjure images of getting up and doing jumping jacks in classroom aisles. For many of us, escaping the grips of high school gym class never came soon enough and it’s probably not something we’d like to revisit. Never fear. When we talk about active learning, we aren’t being that literal. But what is active learning, and why is it important in today’s classroom?

In Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern, Constance Staley writes that today’s teachers are encouraged to take a more facilitative role in the learning experience – an approach that she writes “Requires a shift of attention, a sharing of control, and a need for different communication skills.” She notes that as participation in the classroom increases, the shift of control moves from being solely the teacher’s to being shared between teacher and students. Staley goes on to say that active learning goes beyond a set of techniques, and is actually partly an attitude held by both faculty and students that can work to make learning more effective. (Staley 2003, 4)

Ok, so we know what active learning is, but why active learning? What’s the value in it? In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, authors Svinicki and McKeachie write that in literature on learning, it’s universally agreed upon that there is value in involving learners in the active processing of information they’re receiving. They go on to point out the key differences between hearing and listening mindfully, and that in fact, a learner won’t actually store information in their long-term memory until he or she has done something with that information. (Svinicki and McKeachie, 190)

How about when your students tell you they understood something in class, but went home to try it on their own and found it difficult to do? Active learning in the classroom can give them that opportunity to apply what they’re learning and store it in class versus waiting until they attempt homework – or even an exam – to show them they don’t fully understand.

Lastly, Svinicki and McKeachie tell us that “active learning opens up the opportunity for motivation,” meaning that when students are able to try something and get it right, it’s motivating for them! Motivated learners make more engaged learners, and who’s not looking for that?

References: Content adapted from Staley, Constance. 2003. Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Content adapted from Svinicki, Marilla and McKeachie, Wilbert J. 2011. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

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