ERIC Identifier: ED340272
Publication Date: 1991-09-00
Author: Bonwell, Charles C. - Eison, James A.
Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.| George Washington
Univ. Washington DC.
Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ERIC
Research consistently has shown that traditional lecture methods, in which
professors talk and students listen, dominate college and university classrooms.
It is therefore important to know the nature of active learning, the empirical
research on its use, the common obstacles and barriers that give rise to faculty
members' resistance to interactive instructional techniques, and how faculty,
faculty developers, administrators, and educational researchers can make real
the promise of active learning.
WHAT IS ACTIVE LEARNING AND WHY IS IT
Surprisingly, educators' use of the term "active learning" has
relied more on intuitive understanding than a common definition. Consequently,
many faculty assert that all learning is inherently active and that students are
therefore actively involved while listening to formal presentations in the
classroom. Analysis of the research literature (Chickering and Gamson 1987),
however, suggests that students must do more than just listen: They must read,
write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Most important, to be
actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as
analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Within this context, it is proposed that
strategies promoting active learning be defined as instructional activities
involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.
Use of these techniques in the classroom is vital because of their powerful
impact upon students' learning. For example, several studies have shown that
students prefer strategies promoting active learning to traditional lectures.
Other research studies evaluating students' achievement have demonstrated that
many strategies promoting active learning are comparable to lectures in
promoting the mastery of content but superior to lectures in promoting the
development of students' skills in thinking and writing. Further, some cognitive
research has shown that a significant numbe of individuals have learning styles
best served by pedagogical techniques other than lecturing. Therefore, a
thoughtful and scholarly approach to skillful teaching requires that faculty
become knowledgeable about the many ways strategies promoting active learning
have been successfully used across the disciplines. Further, each faculty member
should engage in self-reflection, exploring his or her personal willingness to
experiment with alternative approaches to instruction.
HOW CAN ACTIVE LEARNING BE INCORPORATED IN THE
The modification of traditional lectures (Penner 1984) is one way
to incorporate active learning in the classroom. Research has demonstrated, for
example, that if a faculty member allows students to consolidate their notes by
pausing three times for two minutes each during a lecture, students will learn
significantly more information (Ruhl, Hughes, and Schloss 1987). Two other
simple yet effective ways to involve students during a lecture are to insert
brief demonstrations or short, ungraded writing exercises followed by class
discussion. Certain alternatives to the lecture format further increase student
level of engagement: (1) the feedback lecture, which consists of two
minilectures separated by a small-group study session built around a study
guide, and (2) the guided lecture, in which students listen to a 20- to
30-minute presentation without taking notes, followed by their writing for five
minutes what they remember and spending the remainder of the class period in
small groups clarifying and elaborating the material.
Discussion in class is one of the most common strategies promoting active
learningmwith good reason. If the objectives of a course are to promote
long-term retention of information, to motivate students toward further
learning, to allow students to apply information in new settings, or to develop
students' thinking skills, then discussion is preferable to lecture (McKeachie
et al. 1986). Research has suggested, however, that to achieve these goals
faculty must be knowledgeable of alternative techniques and strategies for
questioning and discussion (Hyman 1980) and must create a supportive
intellectual and emotional environment that encourages students to take risks
Several additional strategies promoting active learning have been similarly
shown to influence favorably students' attitudes and achievement. Visual-based
instruction, for example, can provide a helpful focal point for other
interactive techniques. In-class writing across the disciplines is another
productive way to involve students in doing things and thinking about the things
they are doing. Two popular instructional strategies based on problem-solving
model include the case study method of instruction and Guided Design. Other
active learning pedagogies worthy of instructors' use include cooperative
learning, debates, drama, role playing and simulation, and peer teaching. In
short, the published literature on alternatives to traditional classroom
presentations provides a rich menu of different approaches faculty can readily
add to their repertoire of instructional skills.
WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS?
To address adequately why most
faculty have not embraced recent calls for educational reform, it is necessary
first to identify and understand common barriers to instructional change,
including the powerful influence of educational tradition; faculty
self-perceptions and self-definition of roles; the discomfort and anxiety that
change creates; and the limited incentives for faculty to change.
But certain specific obstacles are associated with the use of active learning
including limited class time; a possible increase in preparation time; the
potential difficulty of using active learning in large classes; and a lack of
needed materials, equipment, or resources.
Perhaps the single greatest barrier of all, however, is the fact that faculty
members' efforts to employ active learning involve risk--the risks that students
will not participate, use higher-order thinking, or learn sufficient content,
that faculty members will feel a loss of control, lack necessary skills, or be
criticized for teaching in unorthodox ways. Each obstacle or barrier and type of
risk, however, can be successfully overcome through careful, thoughtful
WHAT CONCLUSIONS SHOULD BE DRAWN AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The reform of instructional practice in higher education must begin
with faculty members' efforts. An excellent first step is to select strategies
promoting active learning that one can feel comfortable with. Such low-risk
strategies are typically of short duration, structured and planned, focused on
subject matter that is neither too abstract nor too controversial, and familiar
to both the faculty member and the students.
Faculty developers can help stimulate and support faculty members' efforts to
change by highlighting the instructional importance of active learning in the
newsletters and publications they distribute. Further, the use of active
learning should become both the subject matter of faculty development workshops
and the instructional method used to facilitate such programs. And it is
important that faculty developers recognize the need to provide follow-up to,
and support for, faculty members' efforts to change.
Academic administrators can help these initiatives by recognizing and
rewarding excellent teaching in general and the adoption of instructional
innovations in particular. Comprehensive programs to demonstrate this type of
administrative commitment (Cochran 1989) should address institutional employment
policies and practices, the allocation of adequate resources for instructional
development, and the development of strategic administrative action plans.
Equally important is the need for more rigorous research to provide a
scientific foundation to guide future practices in the classroom. Currently,
most published articles on active learning have been descriptive accounts rather
than empirical investigations, many are out of date, either chronologically or
methodologically, and a large number of important conceptual issues have never
been explored. New qualitative and quantitative research should examine
strategies that enhance students' learning from presentations; explore the
impact of previously overlooked, yet educationally significant, characteristics
of students, such as gender, different learning styles, or stage of intellectual
development; and be disseminated in journals widely read by faculty.
In retrospect, it appears that previous classroom initiatives and written
materials about active learning have all too often been isolated and fragmented.
The resulting pedagogical efforts have therefore lacked coherence, and the goal
of interactive classrooms has remained unfulfilled. Through the coordinated
efforts of individual faculty, faculty developers, academic administrators, and
educational researchers, however, higher education in the coming decade CAN make
real the promise of active learning!
Chickering, Arthur W., and Zelda F.
Gamson. March 1987. "Seven Principles for Good Practice." AAHE Bulletin 39: 3-7.
ED 282 491. 6 pp. MF-01; PC-01.
Cochran, Leslie H. 1989. Administrative Commitment to Teaching. Cape
Girardeau, Mo.: Step Up, Inc.
Hyman, Ronald T. 1980. Improving Discussion Leadership. New York: Columbia
Univ., Teachers College Press.
Lowman, Joseph. 1984. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco:
McKeachie, Wilbert J., Paul R. Pintrich, Yi-Guang Lin, and David A.F. Smith.
1986. Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research
Literature. Ann Arbor: Regents of The Univ. of Michigan. ED 314 999. 124 pp.
Penner, Jon G. 1984. Why Many College Teachers Cannot Lecture. Springfield,
Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.
Ruhl, Kathy L., Charles A. Hughes, and Patrick J. Schloss. Winter 1987.
"Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall." Teacher Education and
Special Education 10: 14-18.
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC HIGHER
EDUCATION REPORT series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education
in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and
published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.