Importance of Active Learning

Active learning is a term used to identify teaching methods that require students to be actively involved in the learning process. The term is sometimes used to contrast against so-called passive methods of teaching, though this may be too simplistic, because no pedagogy can succeed without actively engaging students at some stage. Nevertheless, some teaching approaches are thought to be too passive, and proponents of active learning theory suggest that they tend to be inefficient because of that.
Most college courses are based on a passive lecture format where students are expected to simply listen to the material being presented. In itself, this presents a problem, but most college professors are aware that the structure of the lecture format needs to be enhanced or modified in order to achieve satisfactory results. A number of strategies are commonly engaged to achieve this. Students may be required to make short presentations to their peers, for example, and visual demonstrations, group discussion, or short in-class written exercises may be incorporated into the lecture format. In this way, student activity is ensured and the learning process is greatly improved. Active learning theory, however, has much more than this in mind.

Active learning techniques have been shown to enhance the learning process, but the onus is upon college professors and lecturers to be knowledgeable about alternate approaches to teaching. Some students, for example, are naturally more passive than others, and teaching methods must be flexible and varied in order to accommodate their learning needs. But passive students cannot be reached unless an encouraging learning environment is carefully created in order to invite active participation. A supportive intellectual and emotional environment is needed before any real discussion can take place. Professors should see this as an essential starting point before trying to implement other active learning strategies.

Visual-based instruction is usually seen as a fundamental component of active learning theory. This involves more than traditional audio-visual presentations through film, imagery, and concrete visual aids. Such props, while useful and effective in their own way, can still be received too passively, and they need to be followed up with positive response and action on behalf of the students. Some educators use organized debate, drama, and role playing to ensure student participation. These are powerful techniques that are strongly supported by those who advocate activity-based learning.

Much has been said in recent years about different learning styles and the need to accommodate the different learning strategies adopted by individual students. The theory suggests that some students, auditory learners, can succeed very well by simply listening to the material presented in a lecture format, while others need a visual or tactile approach. This is probably far too simplistic. Long traditions of learning theory, concept formation, and the role of inherent cerebral schemata have shown quite conclusively that both children and adults develop cognitively through a synthesis of sensory experience and action.

Proponents of activity-based learning have hit the nail on the head. Students, whether at the college level or younger, as well as adult learners, need a visual-based approach, and they need to be actively involved in as many ways as possible. College courses designed on this approach to learning will stand the best chances of success.