Active learning ought to be easy. It is what young children do when they play fantasy games, acquire language and develop social skills. Many older children are content to engage for hours in active learning by creating worlds in Minecraft or solving challenges in computer games. But as any teacher knows, putting active learning into practice in the classroom is hard work. Why should this be so?
When young children are active learners, they learn as they want, moving seamlessly between exploration, play, conversation and occasionally reflection. When they play together, the learning is incidental to the game. But active learning in formal education is different. At school, a shift of agency from the learner to the institution makes active learning difficult to implement. Students have to learn when, where and what the curriculum demands.
In universities, the design of teaching rooms and the demands of curriculum, timetable and exams conspire against active learning. They place demands on the university teacher not only to orchestrate a productive learning session but also to set up the classroom space to support small group learning, knowledge seeking and reflection.
In active learning, students have to think critically, solve problems and engage in guided inquiry. Most important, for active learning to work effectively they need to collaborate in groups, often of mixed ability, and overcome reluctance to share their thoughts and listen to the views of others. Students must learn from their peers and reflect on their performance. Still more, they may be required to prepare for the classroom activities by scheduling time in advance of the session to engage with teaching materials and take careful notes.
Nonetheless, active learning is effective. Active learning strategies help students work together on solving problems and designing shared solutions. Active learning promotes peer learning and shared building of knowledge. It teaches a process of learning through cycles of experience and reflection. It can bring results of increased retention of students and enhanced performance in assessments.
One way to get students to engage with active learning is by making it more like a game. This is the idea behind development of simulation games, augmented reality and virtual reality for enhancing decision making and empathy. The latest virtual reality (VR) kit provides an immersive experience of ‘being there’ – in a hospital ward, a classroom, or an emergency situation. Unlike a real situation, the learner can break out of the immersion at any time and reflect on the experience or even restart the episode. Groups of students can interact to solve a shared problem. However, the technology is still immature and needs careful testing before setting students loose in the classroom with heads encased in VR helmets.
Another way is to build a carefully-designed curriculum from elements of traditional teaching and active learning, with the students always aware of when they should be active and what benefits this will bring to their learning. Programmes such as SCALE-UP, Team-Based Learning and Universal Design for Learning can offer scaffolding for learners, teachers and administrators, with clear guidance on how to enable effective learning, how to support students of all abilities, and how to design learning spaces for teamwork, reflection and group presentations.
This book shows how to put active learning into practice with large cohorts of students and how to grow that practice over many years. The authors come from a variety of institutions and discipline areas, including bioscience, pharmacy, medicine, nursing, chemistry, computing, design, accountancy, languages, history, geography, and social work. What they have in common is a desire to improve student engagement, experience and outcomes, through active learning approaches that work in practice and are scalable and sustainable. They have carried out a series of interventions that implement active learning based on best available theory and practice of how students learn, they test the effectiveness of their innovations, and they improve the experience based on their findings.
Good examples of this persistent enhancement are SCALE-UP, a programme of active and collaborative learning combined supported by redesigned learning spaces, at Nottingham Trent University and Team-Based Learning at Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bradford. SCALE-UP started at Nottingham Trent University in 2012, drawing on previous success in the US. The approach was reworked for UK higher education, with a pilot study across disciplines. This initiative produced generally high student satisfaction, but some negative reactions from the students, particularly towards group work. A collegiate process of re-design and enhancement over four years led to improvements in the method and the room design. Experiences were similar at Anglia Ruskin University and University of Bradford where Team-Based Learning was adopted over several years. Then, Government funding offered an opportunity to extend SCALE-UP and Team-Based Learning at the three universities. At each stage, the programme has built on previous findings about what works and has considered how to move beyond early adopters to support and develop staff at institutional level. Such long-term commitment to institutional research and enhancement of learning is rare when many universities are in a continual process of reorganisation and efficiency gains.
We see that there is no magic formula to engage students in active learning programmes. Instead, each institution has adopted a method that works for its students and setting but has also extracted common factors that lead to success. These include careful design of the learning spaces, a focus on helping students to engage with workplace problems, development of students’ skills not only in problem solving and reflection but also empathy and collaboration, support for staff development, continual evaluation of student satisfaction and performance, and institutional commitment to principles and practices of active learning.
The editors from Anglia Ruskin University have not only a deep knowledge of active learning theories and methods, but also experience of running active learning classes and team-based learning sessions. As a visiting Professor at ARU I have seen how this experience gets turned into practice through the university’s commitment to enhancing teaching and learning and support for its Centre for Innovation in Higher Education. The book offers a carefully-edited collection of texts to help other institutions profit from this wealth of scholarship and practice.
Professor Mike Sharples