Simon Pratt-Adams; Uwe Richter; and Mark Warnes

This book is primarily written for those involved in teaching or supporting learning in Higher Education (HE). It is also written for those who influence what goes on in higher education, and we are hopeful that the book will encourage and promote an awareness of the distinctiveness and value of Active Learning approaches. Furthermore, we hope that others with an interest in active, collaborative learning will find something of value in these chapters.

Active Learning

Active Learning is not a new approach. Approaches such as the Socratic method of teaching go back centuries. In the late 1980s, Principle 3 of Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Principles of Good Practice states that students ‘must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves’ (1987: 4). Bonwell and Eison (1991) define active learning as learners having to

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 (1991: 5)

Similarly, Felder (2009) states, ‘Active learning is anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes’ (2009: 2).

Active learning therefore requires students to engage actively in construction knowledge, requiring higher order thinking. While reflecting on their own learning is part of the process, most activities in active learning involve engagement with others (Brame, 2016). Active learning is therefore rooted in constructivist and social constructivist learning theories and represent the move from instructivist or teacher-centred to more student centred teaching approaches.

Active learning has also gained prominence, especially in the English speaking world, where the HE landscape has become increasingly competitive and, in the case of the UK, is also measured and regulated by metrics including student satisfaction, employability, attainment, learning gains and added value.

The chapters in this book reflect the diversity of different active learning approaches and activities including team-based learning, SCALE-UP, flipped classroom, collaborate and cooperative, problem-based and inquiry-based learning, learning in virtual and informal spaces such simulations, virtual and augmented reality and game-based learning, to name a few (Prince, 2004; Brame, 2016).

Active Learning Conference 2017 and OfS Catalyst Project

The idea for this book, its themes and chapters were initiated by the Active Learning Conference, which took place on 11 and 12 September 2017 at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK.

The conference was organised as part and start of the two year HEFCE (now Office for Students) funded Catalyst Project, Scaling Up: Active Collaborative Learning for Student Success, which involved three higher education institutions: Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), University of Bradford (UoB) and Nottingham Trent University (NTU) (project lead). The Catalyst Project is discussed in more detail in the chapters written by the project partners.

The conference presentations and workshops included a wide range of active learning approaches and experiences which is reflected in the book.

Centre for Innovation in Higher Education

Launched in 2018, the Centre for Innovation in Higher Education (CIHE) was established as a centre of applied research within Anglia Learning & Teaching (AL&T), ARU. AL&T supports and inspires all those engaged in learning, teaching, and assessment at the University through good teaching practice and innovation. CIHE drives and supports research-informed innovations in learning, teaching and assessment to improve student outcomes and to create and contribute to pedagogic research and scholarship across ARU and beyond.

CIHE aims to maximise the visibility and evidence of impact of our education initiatives in its three specialist areas of Active Learning, Digital Futures and Design Thinking Pedagogies in Higher Education. It provides impetus, guidance and collaborative support of scholarship and practice in these areas and this text brings together innovations in active learning pedagogies and pedagogic research.

Structure and Themes

The book is structured by topic with chapters grouped into three themes: Approaches to Active Collaborative Learning; Student Engagement and Retention; and Space and Resources. Each theme contains three or four chapters. However, each chapter can also be read as a stand-alone chapter in any particular order. In addition to chapters from colleagues at ARU, others are from a diverse range of UK institutions, including project partners Nottingham Trent University and the University of Bradford, along with De Montfort University, University College London, the University of Bedfordshire, and the University of Sussex, plus one chapter from the University of Akureyri in Iceland.

Theme 1: Approaches to Active Collaborative Learning

SCALE-UP is an active, collaborative learning approach in which students engage in problem-solving and enquiry-based activities. Nottingham Trent University embarked on an institutional wide, multi-disciplinary project. Jane McNeil and Michaela Borg offer a fascinating insight into the reasons for the wide-scale adoption of SCALE-UP across their institution.

Uwe Richter and Rachel Berkson’s chapter presents the positive outcomes of a large-scale research project at ARU into the adoption and impact of Team-Based Learning (TBL) that uses a flipped classroom approach and a structured process to motivate and support collaborative learning. Significantly, they found that the adoption of TBL increased student engagement, performance and attendance compared to traditional methods.

A powerful case for transitioning to active and collaborative learning is made by Simon Tweddell from University of Bradford. TBL was introduced on a final year module with the intention of enhancing engagement and the development of higher-level thinking skills. Compared with pre-TBL cohorts, results clearly demonstrated student preference for and satisfaction with TBL as well as developing accountability to their team. Performance in examinations was also higher among the TBL cohorts.

Theme 2: Student Engagement and Retention

In order to help address poor engagement and retention, Nicky Milner redesigned ARU’s extended medical sciences degree to embed team-based learning as a method for providing formative feedback and introduced personal learning logs to monitor student academic progress in real-time during the teaching period. Here Nicky explores the pedagogy behind the curriculum development and considers the impact of mapping course and module learning outcomes, to ensure that learning and teaching material is constructively aligned, and that assessment has relevance.

Colleagues from the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at De Montfort University applied a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to re-designing the capstone assessment on a second year bioscience module studied by large cohorts of highly diverse students. The innovative approach required students to work actively in teams on a problem-solving task, drawing upon critical-thinking skills, and resulted in an overwhelmingly positive response from students.

As creating high-quality virtual reality (VR) simulations are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable, the question is shifting from if to how VR can be applied to facilitate learning. VR is a uniquely spatial medium capable of deeply immersing users within detailed, interactive, spatial simulations providing a powerful tool for grounding knowledge that bridges the gap between theory and practice while promoting active, lean-forward engagement with learning content. Drawing on examples from teacher education, social care and nursing, ARU colleagues discuss the findings of ongoing research, outline the theoretical motivations for using VR, and highlight the lessons learned.

Following a successful pilot project, ARU has been expanding its use of TBL as an Active Collaborative Learning method. In their chapter Rachel Berkson and Uwe Richter discuss the wide scale adoption of TBL. Drawing on the findings of an OfS funded project discussed elsewhere in this volume, the authors identify both the barriers and solutions to ‘scaling up’ and reflect on the opportunities and challenges of adopting educational innovations at an institutional scale.

Colleagues at ARU, Mike Hobbs and Elaine Brown from the Faculty of Science and Engineering, used a structured set of ‘feedback cycles’ involving peer assessment, called the 1, 2, 3 Feedback Cycle. This improved both attendance, and the submission rate for assignments, the pass rate for which also increased. Students particularly enjoyed the interactivity and collaboration with peers, and improved assessment literacy.

Susan Smith from the University of Sussex introduced authentic teaching and assessment into their course. Students were required to operate in a professional environment to develop their skills, both professional and generic. Student reflections on their experience showed them to be much better prepared for the workplace.

Theme 3: Space and Resources

Auðbjörg Björnsdóttir and Asta Ásmundsdóttir from the University of Akureyri in Iceland present the results of an evaluation of the change from traditional classroom design to an active learning configuration. This transformation has led to the inclusion of telepresence robots to facilitate active learning for distance learning students.

‘Layers of Interaction’ is an approach that enables learners to be supported in actively driving their own inquiry, and deeper engagement with the subject. Colleagues from the University of Bedfordshire and University College London examine a series of object-based learning artefacts that support both individual and collaborative active learning through collaborative enquiry (interaction with peers); object-based learning (interaction with artefacts); and knowledge construction (interaction with the topic, or discipline).

Presenting a series of vignettes from an autoethnographic perspective, Andrew Middleton describes a journey of active learning provision in which he adopts and adapts space to form innovative, active teaching and learning spaces. Redesigning existing classrooms into flexible, learner-centred teaching and learning spaces, involves collaboration and cooperation, and a blend of opportunity and strategy.


In the final, concluding chapter we bring together key themes and issues that have been discussed in previous chapter. We also offer some concluding remarks regarding the central concerns of ‘Active Learning in Higher Education’. In this concluding chapter, we consider both the opportunities and challenges that Active Learning presents and give some reflections about the wider implications to pedagogic practices presented in the book.

We hope you enjoy reading this book and that you find inspiration from the stories shared by the authors.


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Bonwell, C. and Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.

Brame, C., (2016). Active learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Online. (accessed 2 May 2019).

Carr, R., Palmer, S., Hagel, P. (2015). Active learning: the importance of developing a comprehensive measure, Active Learning in Higher Education, 16 (3), 173–86. Online. (accessed 2 May 2019).

Chickering, A.W. and Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3–7. Online.

Felder, R.M. and R. Brent, R. (2009). Active Learning: An Introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4). Online. (accessed 2 May 2019).

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (3), 223–31. Online. (accessed 2 May 2019).


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Innovations in Active Learning in Higher Education Copyright © 2020 by Simon Pratt-Adams; Uwe Richter; and Mark Warnes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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