What the heck IS active learning?

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 26, 2008

Picture by Hay Kranen / PD’.Here in educationland, we’re always touting the benefits of “active learning” or “active engagement.” Someone just recently sent a message to the group asking, hey, does anybody have an agreed-upon definition of what active learning is? One responded, “I find active learning to be one of those phrases that is tricky to define. Many people have a strong opinion on what it means, but there is often not much agreement about the term (like art, love, or wedding). In some cases it seems so specific or general it loses meaning.”
Here are a couple of quotes that came up as we tried to define it:

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”
–Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice,” AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7, March 1987

“Active learning occurs when students talk and listen, read, write, and reflect as they approach course content through problem-solving exercises, informal small groups, simulations, case studies, role playing, and other activities which require students to apply what they are learning.”
(This seems to be a modification from Meyers and Jones (1993) – Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass)
“Active learning is simply that–having students engage in some activity that forces them to think about and comment on the information presented. Students won’t simply be listening, but will be developing skills in handling concepts in our disciplines. They will analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information in discussion with other students, through asking questions, or through writing. In short, students will be engaged in activities that force them to reflect upon ideas and upon how they are using those ideas. The ways of involving our students in learning activities are as varied as our disciplines.” Speaking of Teaching, the Stanford University newsletter on teaching

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