Active Learning – Pros & Cons (2020)

active learning advantages and disadvantagesActive learning is widely regarded as a superior method of teaching and learning in the 21st Century. It encourages children to learn through trial and error, discovery and social interaction.

Key features of active learning include:

  • Conducting experiments
  • Project and Inquiry based learning
  • Learning with, not from, teachers and peers
  • Discovery learning and embracing mistakes

Definition

Active Learning is a constructivist-based approach to learning which emphasizes the importance of learning through experience rather than absorbing facts verbatim from the teacher. It encourages students to discover facts themselves so they genuinely believe and understand the reasons why something is ‘true’ or ‘accurate’. An active approach to education involves solving problems and conducting inquiries into topics.

Pros and Cons

Advantages and Disadvantages of Active Learning

Advantages (Pros)

Disadvantages (Cons)

1. Prolonged Engagement and Motivation1. It is Time Consuming
2. You Learn Information within its Context2. Sometimes Memorization is Necessary
3. You Learn from Trial and Error3. It Discourages Listening to Elders
4. Free Thinking and Creativity are Encouraged4. Students could Develop Misconceptions
5. Active Participation is Encouraged5. Not all Outcomes are Predictable
6. Collaborative Learning is Encouraged

Strengths of Active Learning Include:

1. Prolonged Engagement & Motivation

An active approach to learning will lead to more time on task. If students are engaged in learning by ‘doing’ rather than ‘observing’, they will be occupying their minds and bodies in the task to provide a more immersive experience. They are also more likely to reach a flow state in which they are fully immersed in their own learning.

Active learning may also prevent boredom which further supports motivation and engagement throughout the learning process.

2. Contextualized Learning

Contextualized learning involves learning in authentic environments rather than just learning facts that are removed from real life. An example is learning division by physically dividing up objects into groups, as opposed to learning division by rote.

Active learning tends to be contextualized, because it requires learning by engaging with issues through scenarios and projects, as opposed to learning from books or through repetition.

A contextualized learning scenario can help students actually understand what they are learning and how it links to real life. Learning in context can further help a learner’s memory recall, because they will be able to recall information by thinking about the context in which it emerged.

For example, being taught how to fix a car in a book is far less memorable than actually fixing a car yourself, where you had memorable and detailed hands-on experiences with the knowledge.

3. Learning from Trial and Error

When students learn actively, they have the freedom to discover knowledge for themselves. They can make mistakes and self-correct through their own personal experiences. When we try things out and they fail, we have deeper knowledge of why the don’t work than if we’re simply told “that doesn’t work – don’t even try it!” Thus, an active approach to learning will lead to deeper knowledge and understanding of the topics under analysis.

4. Free Thinking and Creativity

An active approach to learning will also support creativity (Unwin, 2001).

Creativity involves the use of our own original thinking and imagination to come to answers. It helps us to imagine new possibilities and literally ‘create’ new knowledge.

When students learn through ‘doing’ (as opposed to learning through passively listening), they are encouraged to innovate and take risks to come to answers, rather than just accept the answers that are given as ‘taken for granted’.

5. Encourages Participation

Learning for the 21st Century workforce requires getting students to become active participants in their world. Students develop confidence in getting involved in projects when they learn in active rather than passive learning environments.

6. Builds Collaboration Skills

Working in groups is inherently active. Students need to learn to collaborate and cooperate to achieve their goals. These collaboration skills are very important for students, as they will be required to collaborate with others in the workforce.

Weaknesses of Active Learning Include:

1. Time Consuming

Many educators simply cannot spend time creating and implementing active, engaging lessons because they have a crowded curriculum that they need to get through before the end of the course. Our current education system – which is very full of outcomes to achieve – doesn’t provide enough time to go deep and do active tasks for everything that needs to be learned.

2. Memorization is Necessary

Sometimes we have to memorize things. It is necessary, for example, that we have a rote memory of basic multiplication. Imagine if every time you needed to do “5 x 5” you had to count on your fingers to get to 25! Really, you’re going to have to memorize your times tables and other basic pieces of knowledge. Sometimes, you’ve just got to repeat it over and over again until you remember!

3. It Discourages Listening to Elders

One premise of an active approach to learning is that you don’t trust being “told” something – you have to experience it yourself. However, some conservative education proponents would argue that it is actually important to listen to elders and learn from their mistakes. If we just listened more and read more books, we would learn the mistakes of history so we don’t need to make mistakes through trial-and-error for every little thing.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Cognitive Constructivism

Cognitive constructivism is an approach to education that embraces ‘building knowledge’ in your mind by mulling things over in your active memory. As you mull new ideas over, you consider them against your prior knowledge and see if they make sense or should be discarded. It is an approach that sees us as knowledge builders rather than knowledge absorbers, and prioritizes experience as an ideal form of learning.

Social Constructivism

Social constructivism also believes we actively construct knowledge in our minds, but recognizes the important role of social interaction in this process. The people around us will influence our thought process. They will also help us to learn more deeply by discussing their perspectives with us. Key concepts in social constructivism include scaffolding and guided practice.

Examples

I have a full post on examples of active learning. Some of the key points I outline in that post include:

Learning through Play

A play-based approach to learning embraces play as an important formative educational experience. During play, children are very active. They try new things out and learn about their surrounds. As they get older they become more socially engaged during play – in a stage of play we call ‘cooperative play‘. Most theorists today embrace play as the best form of learning for young children.

Collaborative Learning

Learning collaboratively is a group learning approach where students get together to complete projects and come to common agreements on how to proceed. A collaborative approach is active because it requires negotiation, cooperation and bringing minds together. Ideally, it should also involve embracing each team member’s strengths to ensure the product of inquiry is the best it can be.

Inquiry Based Learning

An inquiry based learning approach involves using scientific methods or being systematic to develop new data, knowledge and insight. This approach gets students to go out and seek out knowledge rather than being told facts that they have to repeat verbatim to the teacher.

Don’t forget to jump to the full article on examples of active learning for 17 different examples.

Final Thoughts

Active learning is considered one of the best approaches to learning and teaching. It is a broad term that describes many different forms of learning, including play-based, collaborative and inquiry-based approaches. There are more advantages than disadvantages of active learning, although it is arguable that memorization and rote learning should not be dismissed entirely.

References and Further Reading

Bartholomew, J. B., Jowers, E. M., Roberts, G., Fall, A. M., Errisuriz, V. L., & Vaughn, S. (2018). AL increases children’s physical activity across demographic subgroups. Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 3(1): 1.

Drew, V., & Mackie, L. (2011). Extending the constructs of active learning: implications for teachers’ pedagogy and practice. Curriculum Journal22(4), 451-467.

Hyun, J., Ediger, R., & Lee, D. (2017). Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in AL and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(1), 108-118.

Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (2008). AL: Cooperation in the classroom. The annual report of educational psychology in Japan, 47, 29-30.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education93(3), 223-231.

Ramirez-Loaiza, M. E., Sharma, M., Kumar, G., & Bilgic, M. (2017). AL: an empirical study of common baselines. Data mining and knowledge discovery, 31(2): 287-313.

Unwin, A. & Douglas, A. (2001). Active learning and creativity in education. In: Unwin, A. & Douglas, A. (Eds.). Creativity in Business and Education. (pp. 138-152). Lodz: The Academy of Humanities and Economics in Lodz.