Active Teaching and Learning

by Jocelyn Robson


This paper has been presented at a number of TALESSI workshops during the project’s life-time. It is intended partly at least to provide some theoretical underpinning to the project, particularly the approach to teaching and learning which is exemplified in the TLRs.

It is organised into three main sections. Firstly, there is an attempt to define what is meant by active teaching and learning and to explore briefly its relationship to other strategies. Then there is an outline of its key characteristics, with consideration of both its strengths and drawbacks. The third section explores some key theoretical justifications for adopting an active teaching and learning approach in higher education today.

1. Definition

Active teaching and learning involves the use of strategies which maximise opportunities for interaction. Indeed, some literature (especially in the field of IT and computer-based learning) makes reference to ‘interactive’ rather than active approaches. Our main focus here is on the kinds of strategies that are frequently put in opposition to so-called transmission methods. By transmission methods, I mean formal, didactic, expository and teacher-centred approaches, such as the fifty minute lecture that most of us in higher education are so familiar with. In contrast, active teaching and learning offers opportunities for interaction between teachers and students, amongst the students themselves, as well as between students and the materials, the topic itself or the academic discipline.

Typically, the kinds of strategies we would employ in order to promote active learning are small group work, research based projects, case studies, discussions, role play, field trips and so on. Below is a diagram which I have borrowed from Huddleston & Unwin (1997) and adapted slightly.

Figure 1

The main point to notice here is that this diagram represents, as it says, a ‘continuum’ and not a hard and fast division of strategies into those that are teacher-centred and those that are learner-centred. Degree of teacher involvement varies across the continuum but even the most learner-centred of activities can become teacher-centred in the wrong hands! In other words, much depends on the approach taken by the teacher, how much s/he chooses to control the activity, how much facilitation is needed and so on.

2. Key characteristics of active teaching and learning strategies

A. The main advantages of active teaching and learning approaches are, amongst other things, that they may allow for, or encourage:

Students usually find such activities energising and are likely to engage more with the subject matter as a result.

All students have previous experiences and knowledge of some kind and active strategies offer them the opportunity to make informal connections with things they have already learned.

The opportunity to discuss topics with others and to listen to or address other points of view (as in small group work or role play, for example) may often lead to the revision of existing perspectives and to enhanced learning opportunities.

Many of these strategies are appropriate in inter-disciplinary contexts where students may need to address a problem from a range of view points. In collaborating with each other, they are more likely to have the opportunity to learn to debate and challenge basic assumptions and values.

Active teaching and learning approaches will often yield unanticipated outcomes; there will be some learning that takes place, in other words, that has not been (and could not have been) planned for and this can be rewarding for both students and teachers.

Collaborative activities (such as group work or simulations) provide students with opportunities to learn from and support each other in ways that are not facilitated by more formal, teacher-centred approaches.

By sharing knowledge and experiences, by being encouraged to take a different perspective on a particular topic (e.g. in a debate) students may learn to reflect critically on the things they do and say. [For a brief discussion about reflection as an integral part of ‘deep learning’, refer to section 3 C below.]

Active teaching and learning approaches may encourage students to become more self-directed and self-motivated. By taking on a more enquiring and autonomous role, they are more likely to develop a sense of ‘ownership’ in relation to their learning and to be able to build on this independently in later life.

Strategies like the ones shown in the diagram above (see Figure 1) afford many opportunities for students to develop interpersonal and communicative skills; as well as being important in any search for employment, these skills are essential to personal effectiveness in a range of contexts.

B. Key drawbacks or constraints in using active teaching and learning may include:

Such strategies may take more time than, for example, a straight lecture from the front of the room. Teachers often feel the only way they can ‘get through’ their subject in the available time is to deliver it, in a formal didactic style, with as little ‘distraction’ from students as they can manage! (The problem here is that it does tend to be the teachers who get through it rather than the students and the saving of time can represent a false economy.)

Some professional bodies (e.g. at validation) may place constraints on the curriculum both in terms of content and delivery; to the extent that these constraints may work against the adoption of active teaching and learning approaches, they represent significant drawbacks. Many professional bodies, however, do actively encourage student-centred strategies and collaborative approaches to learning.

Some teachers may genuinely feel it is inappropriate (or even irresponsible) for them to relinquish the centre-stage in the way that would be required of them if, for example, they set up a simulation or student-led debate. This can be a barrier to the adoption of active teaching and learning approaches.

Not all students are expert collaborators; others may bring personal issues to the learning context that effectively disrupt the learning experience for others.

Some learners may be unwilling to risk themselves (in an emotional sense) in the way that a role play, for example, may require them to. (Careful handling can overcome many of these sorts of problems and adequate time for a proper de-briefing of participants is also important.)

Some teachers (and students) in higher education may feel that ‘learning’ in their subject is not connected to ‘doing’ in any obvious way, that it is ‘thinking’ (not ‘doing’) that leads to learning and that thinking is best carried out independently. They may see active teaching and learning approaches as promoting a ‘diluted’ form of learning.

Some feel that the adoption of more student-centred approaches in higher education will effectively limit the access that students have to teachers’ knowledge and expertise in the subject. This view may represent a constraint on the adoption of such approaches.

Some colleagues may be genuinely interested in moving towards more student-centred approaches in their work but may feel unable to do so because of a lack of confidence or knowledge about what such approaches might entail. Staff developers have an increasingly important role to play in such situations.

3. Theoretical justifications

This section will attempt to provide a brief theoretical justification for the adoption of active teaching and learning approaches. Education is, of course, an inter-disciplinary subject and concepts used here are drawn from a range of areas, including the psychology of learning and sociolinguistics. I have deliberately selected disparate strands in the literature and taken concepts from across the field.

A. Motivation, curiosity and activity

In the psychology of learning, interest and learning are intimately related. Whilst individuals differ in terms of the things that interest or motivate them, there does seem to be a built-in tendency to notice and react to novelty. As humans, in other words, we appear to have a tendency to approach, explore and manipulate new things and to find this pleasurable; curiosity is a basic human motive. (Tomlinson, 1981)

Two concepts are worth mentioning here. The first is something called competence or effectance motivation (White, 1959) which is the motivation we have towards effective interaction with our environment. Realising this motivation brings feelings of efficacy that are frequently observed in young children but also in adults.

The second concept is called cognitive commitment (McReynolds, 1971) and this refers to our tendency to complete new cognitive projects. The number of such commitments and the rate at which we seek new ones vary amongst individuals of course; but the general point is that the tendency to completion is strong, perhaps because interruption of such projects is generally thought to be a source of negative emotion and arousal.

The importance to us, as teachers, lies in understanding the role of interest and motivation in effective learning. There is a strong case for capitalizing on the human tendencies described above, on the desire we have to interact with our environment, on our curiosity and on the energising effect of activity itself.

B. Language varieties and ‘encoding’

The role of language in learning is complex. Sociolinguistics distinguishes between language registers and language dialects and this distinction may be helpful here. A register is a variety of language which is defined according to its use; thus, in a formal interview for a promotion I might adopt a particular register but in a staffroom conversation about recent political ‘sleaze’, I might adopt a quite different one. Dialects are language varieties defined according to user and dialects may overlap with registers so that one person’s dialect (e.g. standard English) may be another’s register. Switching between language varieties is something we all do frequently and it is called code switching.

The importance of these distinctions for us, as teachers, is two-fold. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the language variety our student uses may not be the language of the institution or of the academic subject they are studying. This mismatch should concern us, if we are concerned to provide a climate where students feel safe to explore their own thoughts and voice their own opinions. Secondly, the student’s own language variety and the way they use language is an important part of their identity, of the way they have come to see themselves and wish to be seen. If we wish to help build their self-esteem, we need to take this into account.

In addition, students need opportunities to use their own language varieties so that they can achieve what is referred to as ‘deep learning’ (see section 3 C below). Another distinction is useful here between what psychologists call ‘en-coding’ and ‘de-coding’. De-coding is the straightforward recording of what is transmitted (as when I take down verbatim notes from a lecture, for example) whereas encoding is the active transformation of what is given into a familiar form. Opportunities to re-work new knowledge or ideas into meaningful forms through encoding are essential for effective learning and students need to be able to do this using language varieties that are familiar and comfortable. Such opportunities can be created through the use of active teaching and learning strategies, such as those outlined above.

C. Learning from experience

The role of reflection in learning was mentioned earlier and we turn now to a model elaborated by David Kolb (1984). Kolb was interested in ‘deep learning’ which is defined as the learning which is concerned to extract principles and underlying meanings, to make sense of facts and feelings and to integrate them with previously acquired knowledge. ‘Surface learning’, in contrast, is rote learning, or the kind of learning many students do for their exams, for example. Kolb’s model of experiential learning (or ‘learning by doing’) takes the form of a cycle and suggests that for deep learning to occur a series of activities needs to be set in place. The model has four stages and is represented below:

Figure 2

According to this model, the learner may start at any point in the cycle (depending on their preferred learning style) but all four stages are necessary for the completion of meaningful learning. So, for example, students might undertake a field trip (as a concrete experience) and be asked to keep a log or diary of the trip (as reflective observation); once back at college, they might debate with each other what the findings mean and undertake some further reading before drawing conclusions (abstract conceptualisation). Lastly, they might embark on another field trip to a different location in order to test a new hypothesis (active experimentation) and so begin the learning cycle again.

This model effectively emphasises the importance of reflection to the process of learning; it sees reflection as the basis of learning. The activity (or concrete experience) is of little use by itself; the field trip must be accompanied by diary-keeping, the simulation must be followed by the de-briefing. Active teaching and learning strategies will provide opportunities for relating learning to previous experience but the teacher’s role is critical in ensuring that reflection occurs.

D. Contestable knowledge

Finally, this section takes a more philosophical view of the issues related to student learning that we have been considering. Many of the decisions that we routinely take in relation to our practice, as teachers, will be strongly influenced by the way we were ourselves taught. They will also be strongly influenced by our understanding of what it means to learn. We may believe that learning is equivalent to remembering - for example, to acquiring knowledge which is somehow ‘out there’, completely knowable and detached; or we may believe that to learn is somehow to be changed as an individual.

If we feel that, as teachers, our job is to teach not so much ‘bodies of knowledge’ as critical thinking, and the adoption of a critical stance towards taken-for-granted knowledge; if we see knowledge as culturally and historically specific, sustained by social processes and social interactions (particularly language); then we are likely to want to use active teaching and learning strategies. We may also want to use them for their higher levels of participation, for the opportunities they provide for the use of previous knowledge and experience, for the chance they give students to debate and contest underlying assumptions and values, and for their greater openness in relation to learning outcome.

References & further reading

Boud, D Cohen, R & Walker D (1993) Using Experience for Learning, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Brookfield, S (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, California: Jossey- Bass.

Burr, V (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism, London: Routledge.

Carr, W & Kemmis, S (1986) Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research, Sussex: Falmer Press.

Hartley, J (1998) Learning and Studying: A Research Perspective, London: Routledge.

Honey P & Mumford A (1992) The Manual of Learning Styles, Maidenhead: Peter Honey.

Huddleston, P & Unwin, L (1997) Teaching and learning in further education: diversity and change, London: Routledge.

Jones, K (1988) Interactive Learning Events: A Guide for Facilitators, London: Kogan Page.

Kolb, D (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs N.J. :Prentice-Hall.

Lockitt, B (1997) Learning Styles: into the future, London: FEDA/NCET

Major, B & Pugh, A. (eds) (1987) Language, Communication and Education, Buckingham: Open University Press.

McReynolds, P (1971) ‘The three faces of cognitive motivation’ in Day, H, Berlyne, D & Hunt, D (eds) Intrinsic Motivation: A New Direction in Education, Toronto: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Rogers, A (1996) Teaching Adults, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Tomlinson, P (1981) Understanding teaching: interactive educational psychology, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.

Van Ments, M (1992) The Effective Use of Role Play: A Handbook for teachers and trainers, London: Kogan Page.

White, R (1959) ‘Motivation reconsidered - the concept of competence’ Psychological Review, 66, p.297-333.

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