When I first received this article as an assignment, I thought that active learning was simple stuff. The answer is, when your brain is actively engaged in receiving information. That sums it up, right? Wrong. Stick with me, and I’ll show you “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
You may have recognized the last line as a quote from a famous movie. I picked it up last night while watching a clip from “The Office” in which Dwight is made to believe that he is part of The Matrix. Since almost everyone has seen a TV show, I want you to choose a character that you like and imagine that you have to learn their lines for the show. It’s the most important show of the series, and you have a big part!
What are the methods that you will use to prepare yourself for the big show?
Here are your choices:
- Silently read the lines to yourself
- Listen to someone read the lines to you
- Watch and listen as someone reads your lines and acts them out
- Say your lines and write them down
- Say your lines and act them out
If you answered that you would say your lines and act them out, then you have the best chance of doing well. Learners generally retain 90% of the information by saying and doing what they have learned. The more you are engaged in what you are learning about, the clearer the understanding will become, and it will also become more solidified in your memory.
Twist Up, Go Right, And Over Again
I have a student who enjoys bringing his Rubik’s Cube to every class. As he is talking to me he fidgets with the cube nonchalantly, and I see an array of colored cubes in different patterns.
After a little bit of time, there is a solid wall of the same colors of cubes. How is it that he achieved the goal of passively solving the puzzle as he does something else? Do you think that I am able to solve a Rubix cube simply because I have watched him do it a few times?
I can assure you that I do not know how to solve it from just watching him. I asked him the secret to solving it and he told me the pattern that he follows. Am I able to repeat it to you now? Absolutely not. What is the way that I’ll be able to really understand how to solve the Rubix cube?
A Passively Painful Lesson
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
During passive learning, we are still able to learn, but the chances of remembering and later being able to teach what we learned are less than if we had been involved in active learning.
Do you recall being told as a child to watch your fingers when you are around car doors? I was a small child with tiny little fingers, and my mother was always watching out for me. I had heard her instructions a hundred times before, but that one time that I got my fingers pinched (in my aunt’s van door) I really understood what she meant when she told me that it would hurt.
To this day, I remember the panic I experienced when my fingers were got stuck, and the way it felt. I do not encourage active learning when it comes to pain!
Active Learning in an Online World
I personally do not think that staring at a screen for an hour while listening to the best lecture is going to do anyone much good. Would you trust a surgeon who watched hours of surgery but never picked up a scalpel to do an excellent job?
To become truly knowledgeable and skilled, the surgeon must know his tools, know how to use them, and perform multiple successful surgeries. Likewise, students need to receive instruction and take action on what they have learned.
One word to summarize active learning is this, engaging. Take the information and use it. Make something with your hands, talk about it, teach others, and use it every day. Creating and perfecting skills takes time and a lot of engagement.