Five Key Principles of Active Learning

A review of the research on active learning compiled for physiology faculty contains five “key findings” that author Joel Michael maintains ought “to be incorporated [into] our thinking as we make decisions about teaching physiology [I would say, name your discipline] at any educational level.” (p. 160) Here’s the list, along with a brief discussion of each.

1. Learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner. This well-established principle involves the fact that students link new information with information that they already know. New and old information are assembled into mental models. If the old information is faulty, that compromises the learning of new information. “Learning can be thought about as a process of conceptual change in which faulty or incomplete models are repaired.” (p. 161) Fixing faulty mental models can be very difficult, as witnessed by research documenting that even after taking a course (physics is often used as an example), students still hold serious misconceptions.

2. Learning facts and learning to do something are two different processes. This explains why students can know a set of facts and still be unable to apply those facts to solve a problem. If students are to successfully use knowledge, they must have opportunities to practice and obtain feedback. A variety of other instructional advice follows from this principle, including the fact that students who are learning to solve problems need to know more than whether the answer is right or wrong. The sequence of problems from easy to hard is also important.

3. Some things that are learned are specific to the domain or context (subject matter or course) in which they are learned, whereas other things are more readily transferred to other domains. What’s at issue here is knowledge transfer and whether students can take what they know about one subject or topic and transfer that knowledge to another subject or topic. As many college teachers have observed, students often have great trouble with this. There are still a number of research controversies in this area, but there is growing recognition that transfer involves skills that students need to be taught.

4. Individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others than when they learn alone. Many faculty are very independent learners and so struggle a bit with accepting this principle.

5. Meaningful learning is facilitated by articulating explanations, whether to one’s self, peers, or teachers. Students learn to speak the languages of disciplines when they practice speaking those languages.

by Maryellen Weimer, PhD.

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