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HOS Blog: What Do We Mean By Active Learning?

As much as my work demands that I look at the broad and strategic outcomes of learning, I have always been interested and have training in the details of instructional strategies and learning theories. I want to connect a big idea in education, that students should be actively engaged in their learning, with a few strategies that have been shown in the research literature to be significantly more effective than passive approaches.

A number of recent studies indicate strongly that things like quizzing, explaining, and enacting lead to more successful outcomes in learning than passive approaches. The conclusion these studies put forth is that learning is a generative activity and that we gain expertise by actively producing what we know.

Logan Fiorella and Richard Meyer have shown in numerous studies that when we actively produce what we know, we will learn it more successfully. Meyer says that when we push ourselves to make a mental image of what we are reading, what he calls a "mind movie", we are building cognitive connections and making our learning more durable than it would be if we were to just re-reading a book or text. The same is true for preparing for an exam, just rereading through our notes will not be as effective as using doing something specific with the material as we prepare for a test.

Why is active learning more beneficial? Another researcher, John Dunlosky has conducted studies in this area. As an example, Dunlosky looked at highlighting as a learning technique. He found that highlighting and re-reading were weak approaches because they do not engage our brains in enough "doing". Instead, his research indicates that techniques like self-quizzing and self-explaining are far more effective because the learner is working with the material. Experts describe these approaches as "mental doing".

When educators speak about active learning, we are looking for activities that engage students in mental doing in order to facilitate the type of cognitive activity that leads to measurable outcomes.

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