"Active Learning" Has Become a Buzzword (and Why That Matters)

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Popularized in a 1991 report by Charles Bonwell and James Eison, the term "active learning" has for a long time served us well, but it now seems to have joined other bits of jargon like "student-centered," "flipped," and "innovative," and morphed into a buzzword. Using the label "active learning" has, in the past, allowed us to refer to constructivist pedagogies, collaborative strategies, interactive methods, and more all under the same umbrella. As a general rule, though, umbrellas tend to work best when they are used to meet a specific objective--like keeping the rain off of our faces--rather than serving as all-purpose tools used for everything from unclogging the sink to sweeping the floor.

So it is with active learning. For years, the term has filled a gap for us. It has functioned rhetorically as a way to contrast evidence-based teaching practices (a much better term, by the way) with more traditional methodologies, but ultimately the wide-ranging utility of this classification is also its drawback. Although, as Cynthia Brame notes, some scholars have tried to create an operational definition for active learning, they also acknowledge the category is enormously broad. This breadth is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Indeed, it means that we have a lot of options for helping students to learn. The problem is that "active learning" has come to mean all things to all people and essentially encompasses everything that is not passive.

Why is this a problem? For one thing, it leads to misunderstandings. The "active" part of the term can sometimes cause folks who are considering changing their teaching practices or those who have resisted doing so to think that all effective teaching practices require students physically moving around, going up to the board, etc. Certainly, some successful strategies look like this, but the generalized nature of the term can elicit some assumptions that can be intimidating and actually impede positive change.

Another issue with the overly broad nature of the term "active learning" is that it can create the illusion that the answers to teaching challenges are both monolithic and easily developed. Here is a fictional conversation that may or may not look familiar:

          Person 1: I really want my students to learn more and to do better on the exams this semester. What changes do you think I should make?

          Person 2: Maybe you should try adding more active learning to your courses.

          Person 1: Okay.

Sure, this is the beginning of a viable solution, but the next step would be to sift through the many strategies under the rubric of active learning, to select one or more to try, and to think about successful implementation. My concern here is that active learning becomes an easy thing to prescribe as a cure but difficult to put into practice because it covers such a vast array of possibilities.

For a more productive approach to our discussions about active learning, we might consider re-framing the category as a system of pedagogical approaches that utilizes those teaching strategies most aligned with and responsive to the ways in which people actually learn. By definition, then, such teaching techniques could not be passive, because we learn very little when we are passively receiving information. Thus, they could conceivably be called "active" strategies, but it is not actually the activity here that matters as much as the deep learning and understanding students develop through the implementation of the techniques.

Collectively, we know a lot about how human beings learn--a subject that has dominated my own thinking about teaching for the last 5 or so years. The most successful, and the most dynamic, teaching techniques will be those that are attuned to our cognitive processes. Here is one brief example: people can actually remember quite a lot, but we can most successfully move information from our working memories to long-term storage if we develop conceptual frameworks for this information. From this principle, we can choose teaching strategies that are most likely to help our students create such frameworks.

The example above assumes that one of the learning goals we have for our students is remembering important information, however, which brings me to the other key part of the process. Once we have a grounding in the pedagogical approaches that are connected to the ways in which people learn, then we need to make choices that are tied directly to our learning goals. What do you want students to achieve, and which teaching techniques will help students get there? This isn't a novel approach; in fact, it's just basic Backward Design. The combination of selecting teaching techniques that are tied to our learning goals and then further refining these choices by aligning them with principles from the science of learning provides us with a path forward that is clearer than referring to the collective body of pedagogical strategies that fall under the umbrella of active learning. 

It is not possible to create a generalized label for such a method, because we are talking about a process--a system--not a category. In the end, the deflection of easy compartmentalization doesn't necessarily help us if we are simply trying to develop a kind of shorthand for our work, but it may more easily allow us to achieve our ultimate goal of creating meaningful, sustained change in higher education by attending to the specific pedagogical needs of our students and instructors.

So how do we open up conversations with colleagues? Is there a convenient way to summarize what we mean by effective teaching practices instead of using the term "active learning"? Here is what I've been trying lately with faculty, administrators, and other audiences: Successful teaching is not about activity, per se. It's about choosing strategies that are most connected to how people learn.

Posted on July 17, 2018 .