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Author: Suzanne M. Swiderski PhD

active learning in the classroom
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. Teaching ProfessorHowever, 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. 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.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 21.3 (2007): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.