Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Educational Psychology: Assessment · Issues · Theory & research · Techniques · Techniques X subject · Special Ed. · Pastoral

Active learning is an umbrella term that refers to several models of instruction that focus the responsibility of learning on learners. Bonwell and Eison (1991) popularized this approach to instruction (Bonwell & Eison 1991). This "buzz word" of the 1980s became their 1990s report to the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). In this report they discuss a variety of methodologies for promoting "active learning." However according to Mayer (2004) strategies like “active learning" developed out of the work of an earlier group of theorists -- those promoting discovery learning. Practice after initial learning, is of vital importance in one's education/career, and is important for cognitive development, but is practice required during learning?

It has been suggested that students who actively engage with the material are more likely to recall information (Bruner 1961), but several well known authors have argued this claim is not well supported by the literature (Anderson, Reder & Simon 1998) (Gagné 1966) (Mayer 2004) (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark 2006). Rather than being behaviorally active during learning, Mayer (2004) suggests learners should be cognitively active.

Active learning exercises

Bonwell and Eison (1991) suggested learners work in pairs, discuss materials while role-playing, debate, engage in case study, take part in cooperative learning, or produce short written exercises, etc. The argument is when should active learning exercises be used during instruction. While it makes some sense to use these techniques as a "follow up" exercise or as application of known principles, it may not make sense to use them to introduce material. Proponents argue that these exercises may be used to create a context of material, but this context may be confusing to those with no prior knowledge. The degree of instructor guidance students need while being "active" may vary according to the task and its place in a teaching unit.

Examples of "active learning" activities include:

  • A class discussion may be held in person or in an online environment. This environment allows for instructor guidance. Learners should be prepared to discuss materials in class and this would be a good follow up activity given the unit has been sufficiently covered already.
  • A think-pair-share activity is when learners take a minute to ponder the previous lesson, later to discuss it with one or more of their peers, finally to share it with the class as part of a formal discussion. It is during this formal discussion that the instructor should clarify misconceptions. However students need a background in the subject matter to converse in a meaningful way. Therefore a "think pair share" exercise is useful in situations where learners can identify and relate what they already know to others. So preparation is key. Prepare learners with sound instruction before expecting them to discuss it on their own.
  • A "learning cell" is an effective way for a pair of students to study and learn together. The learning cell was developed by Marcel Goldschmid of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Goldschmid, 1971). A learning cell is a process of learning where two students alternate asking and answering questions on commonly read materials. To prepare for the assignment, the students will read the assignment and write down questions that they have about the reading. At the next class meeting, the teacher will randomly put the students in pairs. The process begins by designating one student from each group to begin by asking one of their questions to the other. Once the two students discuss the question. The other student will ask a question and they will alternate accordingly. During this time, the teacher is going around the class from group to group giving feedback and answering questions. This system is also referred to as a student dyad.
  • A short written exercise that is often used is the "one minute paper." This is a good way to review materials and provide feedback. However a "one minute paper" does not take one minute and for students to concisely summarize it is suggested[attribution needed] that they have at least 10 minutes to work on this exercise.

While practice is useful to reinforce learning, problem solving is not always suggested. Sweller (1988) suggests solving problems can even have negative influence on learning, instead he suggests that learners should study worked-examples, because this is a more efficient method of schema acquisition. So instructors are cautioned to give learners some basic or initial instruction first, perhaps to be followed up with an activity based upon the above methods.

Active learning method: Learning by teaching (LdL)

Main article: Learning by teaching

An efficient instructional strategy that mixes guidance with active learning is "Learning by teaching" (Martin 1985, Martin/Oebel 2007). This strategy allows students to teach the new content to each other. Of course they must be accurately guided by instructors. This methodology was introduced during the early 1980s, especially in Germany, and is now well established in all levels of the German educational system.[1] "Learning by teaching" is integration of behaviorism and cognitivism and offers a coherent framework for theory and practice.

Active learning and Policy

Policy may be satisfied by demonstrating the instructional effectiveness of instruction. Rubrics (education) are a good way to evaluate "active learning" based instruction. These instructional tools can be used to describe the various different qualities of any activity. In addition, if given to the student, they can provide additional guidance (here is an example rubric).

In the past few years Outcome-based education policy has begun to limit instructors to only using those techniques that have been shown to be effective. In the United States for instance, the No Child Left Behind Act requires those developing instruction to show evidence of its "effectiveness".

Research supporting active learning

A growing body of data supports active learning.[2] Bonwell and Eison (1991) state that active learning strategies are comparable to lectures for achieving content mastery, but superior to lectures for developing thinking and writing skills.[3]

Should learning occur while one is behaviorally active?

Some educational literature from the past few decades suggests initial skill acquisition occurs best when one is cognitively active (Mayer, 2004), but not behaviorally active.[4] Certainly practicing procedural skills is a necessity for learning to be automated. But while these activities may be motivating for learners, these unguided situations can in fact leave learners less competent than when they began the activity.[4]

One 2007 study compared results for college students in six different versions of a computer literacy course. In some groups, instructional elements were left out (objectives, information, examples, practice with feedback, review). The "practice with feedback" is the active learning component of the study. The researchers found that in all cases, students who had practice with feedback had better performance and more positive attitudes than those students who did not have opportunities for practice.[5]

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) [4] suggest that novices be taught with direct methods of instruction like worked examples. Sweller (2006) discusses the worked-example effect as a alternative to problem solving for novices. However practice with feedback is condoned and even encouraged by Sweller and his associated because these types of learning are important for those who already acquired a schema (Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003) therefore there is no conflict between Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark's views, and those of Klein and Sullivan. Each agrees that learner be given practice with feedback, Kirschner et al. (2006) propose instruction should however begin with worked examples.

Studying examples as an alternative to active learning strategies

Self-guided instruction is possible, but Sweller and Cooper argue that it is often arduous, clumsy, and less than efficient (Sweller and Cooper, 1985). Sweller (1988) suggests learners should first study worked-examples because this is a more efficient method of initial instruction. Sweller and Cooper found that learners who studied worked examples performed significantly better than learners who actively solved problems (Sweller & Cooper, 1985; Cooper & Sweller, 1987). This was later called the "worked-example effect" (Clark, Nguyen and Sweller, 2006).

Evidence for learning by studying worked-examples (the worked example effect) has been found to be useful in many domains [e.g. music, chess, athletics (Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham, 2000); concept mapping (Hilbert & Renkl, 2007); geometry (Tarmizi and Sweller, 1988); physics, mathematics, or programming (Gerjets, Scheiter, and Catrambone, 2004)]. Finally the worked example effect is only useful for novices (Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller, 2003), so again practice, is a necessity, but only later after a student has the underlying schema in place.

Learning in Sudbury model democratic schools

Main article: Sudbury model

Sudbury model democratic schools criticize today's schools, the concept of learning disabilities, special education, and response to intervention, taking the position that every child has a different learning style and pace and that each child is unique, not only capable of learning but also capable of succeeding.

They believe there are many reasons why children may have difficulty learning, especially when the learning is imposed and the subject is something the child, or the young, or even the adult is not interested in, as is frequently done in today's school system.

Sudbury model democratic schools assert that there are many ways to study and learn. They argue that learning is a process people do, not a process that is done to people; they affirm this is true of everyone and it is basic.[6] The experience of Sudbury model democratic schools, they adduce, shows there are many ways to learn without the intervention of a teacher being imperative. They maintain that in the case of reading for instance in the Sudbury model democratic schools some children learn from being read to, memorizing the stories and then ultimately reading them. Others learn from cereal boxes, others from games instructions, others from street signs. Some teach themselves letter sounds, others syllables, others whole words. Sudbury model democratic schools adduce that in their schools no one child has ever been forced, pushed, urged, cajoled, or bribed into learning how to read or write, and they affirm they have had no dyslexia. They also assert that none of their graduates are real or functional illiterates, and claim no one who meets their older students could ever guess the age at which they first learned to read or write.[7] They also claim that in a similar form students learn all the subjects, techniques and skills in these schools. The staff are minor actors, the "teacher" is an adviser and helps just when asked.[8][9]

Describing current instructional methods as homogenization and lockstep standardization, alternative approaches are proposed, such as the Sudbury model democratic schools, an alternative approach in which they affirm children, by enjoying personal freedom thus encouraged to exercise personal responsibility for their actions, learn at their own pace and style rather than following a compulsory and chronologically-based curriculum.[10][11][12]

A healthy upbringing gives free [sic]
to children from the very beginnings of their lives to recognize and express their basic needs. The earlier this begins, and the longer it is allowed to develop without intervention, the more likely it is that such children will go through life with a firmly established set of inner-directed guidelines that enable them to distinguish clearly between needs that are real for them, and needs that are artificially introduced by others. Indeed, the worst excesses of our consumer economy can be traced directly to the inability of people to make this distinction, which is a result of being raised according to the principles of Industrial Era Thinking.[13] 

As Sudbury model of democratic education schools, proponents of unschooling have also claimed that children raised in this method do not suffer from learning disabilities, thus not requiring the prevention of academic failure through intervention.

See also This page uses content from the English-language version of Wikiversity. The original article was at {{{1}}}. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with Psychology Wiki, the text of Wikiversity is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.


  1. Jean-Pol Martin:Zum Aufbau didaktischer Teilkompetenzen beim Schüler. Fremdsprachenunterricht auf der lerntheoretischen Basis des Informationsverarbeitungsansatzes. Dissertation. Tübingen: Narr. 1985; Jean-Pol Martin, Guido Oebel (2007): Lernen durch Lehren: Paradigmenwechsel in der Didaktik?, In: Deutschunterricht in Japan, 12, 2007, 4-21 (Zeitschrift des Japanischen Lehrerverbandes, ISBN: 1342-6575)
  3. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ERIC Digest, Bonwell & Eison, 1991.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Kirschner P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 41 (2) 75-86
  5. Martin, F., Klein, J. D., & Sullivan, H. (2007) "The impact of instructional elements in computer-based instruction" British Journal of Educational Technology 38 (4), 623–636.
  6. Greenberg, D. (1987) The Sudbury Valley School Experience Back to Basics. Accessed December 6, 2008.
  7. Greenberg, D. (1987) Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School, Chapter 5, The Other 'R's.
  8. Greenberg, D. (1987), Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School, Chapter 19, Learning.
  9. Greenberg, H. (1987) The Sudbury Valley School Experience, The Art of Doing Nothing. Accessed December 6, 2008.
  10. Greenberg, D. (1992), Education in America, A View from Sudbury Valley, "Special Education" -- A noble Cause Sacrificed to Standardization.
  11. Greenberg, D. (1992), Education in America, A View from Sudbury Valley, "Special Education" -- A Noble Cause Run Amok.
  12. Greenberg, D. (1987), Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School, Chapter 1, And 'Rithmetic.
  13. Greenberg, D. (1994), Worlds in Creation, The Meaning of Education. Accessed December 7, 2008.


  • Anderson, J. R. (1998). "Radical constructivism and cognitive psychology" D. Ravitch (Ed.) Brookings papers on education policy 1998, Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press.
  • Atkinson, R. K. (2000). Learning from examples: Instructional principles from the worked examples research. Review of Educational Research 70: 181–214.
  • Bonwell, C. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No.1, Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review 31 (1): 21–32.
  • Clark, R. (2006). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load, San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
  • Gagné, R. (1966). "Varieties of learning and the concept of discovery: A critical appraisal" Shulman, L. S. and Keislar, E. R. (Eds) Learning by discovery: A critical appraisal., Chicago: Rand McNally and Co..
  • Gerjets,P. Scheiter,K. and Catrambone, R. (2004).Designing instructional examples to reduce intrinsic cognitive load: molar versus modular presentation of solution procedures. Instructional Science. 32(1) 33–58
  • Kalyuga,S., Ayres,P. Chandler,P and Sweller,J. (2003). The Expertise Reversal Effect. Educational Psychologist 38 (1): 23–31.
  • Kirschner, P. A. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75–86.
  • Hilbert, T. S., & Renkl, A. (2007). Learning how to Learn by Concept Mapping: A Worked-Example Effect. Oral presentation at the 12th Biennial Conference EARLI 2007 in Budapest, Hungary
  • Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist 59 (1): 14–19.
  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12 (1): 257–285.
  • Sweller, J., & Cooper, G. A. (1985). The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra. Cognition and Instruction 2 (1): 59–89.
  • Tarmizi, R.A. and Sweller, J. (1988). Guidance during mathematical problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80 (4) 424-436

Further references

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).