In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that ...
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In recent years, the phrase active learning has become commonplace across the academic disciplines of higher education. Indeed, most faculty members are familiar with definitions that go something like this: Active learning involves tasks that require students not only to do something, but also to think about what they have done. Moreover, many faculty have already incorporated into their teaching activities associated with active learning, such as interactive lectures, collaborative learning groups, and discussion-related writing tasks.
However, faculty may not be aware that, from the perspective of cognitive psychology, the meaning of active learning is slightly different. According to cognitive psychology, active learning involves the development of cognition, which is achieved by acquiring "organized knowledge structures" and "strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems." (This particular definition is from a cognitive psychology text edited by Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, School.) Additionally, active learning entails a process of interpretation, whereby new knowledge is related to prior knowledge and stored in a manner that emphasizes the elaborated meaning of these relationships.
Faculty interested in promoting this cognitively oriented understanding of active learning can do so by familiarizing their students with such cognitive active learning strategies as activating prior knowledge, chunking, and practicing metacognitive awareness.
Activating Prior Knowledge — Students need to determine what they already know about a particular principle so any preconceptions or misconceptions can be corrected before further learning occurs. For example, prior to teaching about the process of photosynthesis, a biology instructor could discuss with students their current understanding of the ways plants gain nutrition. By doing so, the instructor can correct any erroneous information so that students are not attempting to reconcile misinformation with the appropriate information the instructor will shortly present.
Chunking — Students need to be able to group individual pieces of information into larger, more meaningful units, so these "chunks" of information can be remembered and retrieved in an efficient manner. A mathematics instructor, for instance, could help students learn by presenting strategies used to solve problems as groups of integrated steps, with meaningful connections between these steps, rather than as isolated tactics that could be combined in several different ways.
Practicing Metacognitive Awareness — Students need information about their own thinking processes so they can effectively plan, monitor, and evaluate their progress in learning. For example, while teaching a specific Greek epic, a classics instructor could discuss with students where in the text they experienced difficulty and how they resolved that difficulty. By doing so, the instructor encourages students to reflect on the comprehension strategies that they are already using, as well as to learn other useful strategies from their peers.
Faculty interested in promoting active learning should not attempt to incorporate all of these cognitive active learning strategies into their classroom instruction in a single period, or even during a single week, because doing so would likely prove overwhelming and exhausting to students. Rather, they might consider choosing a single strategy, teaching it to students, and then repeatedly requiring the use of it—for in- and out-of-class tasks—throughout a semester. If they provide students with instruction in the strategy and follow that instruction with opportunities for practice and feedback, they will help students make the strategy a natural and automatic part of their learning efforts.
Reference: Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., and Cocking, R. R. (Eds.) 2000. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Suzanne M. Swiderski is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside.