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March 23, 2008

Active learning

There is a large body of research testing the hypothesis that, all else equal, people learn more through "active" than through "passive" learning.

Active learning is a loose concept. The version that I find most convincing, and I think the research best supports, is that learners who are cognitively active acquire and retain complex material better. (An early view pushed "behaviorally" active, but the evidence does not support this as well.)

For some bibliographies on active learning research, see "The Active Learning Site -- Bibliographies". The same site presents three summaries of early, influential studies (done in the 1980s).

Cognitive psychology supports many of the intuitive ideas behind active learning. For example, information is encoded more effectively into long-term memory -- and thus is more retrievable -- through elaboration and deep processing, more so than through repetition and massed practice. John Sweller at the University of New South Wales is perhaps the originator of "cognitive load" theory, and has done many studies indicating that simultaneously presenting an audience with the same material both orally and written -- precisely what we do when we lecture from text-dense bullet point slides -- reduces comprehension. Our brains experience conflict and overloading from the two separate, simultaneous presentations of nearly identical but slightly different words. One glaring example we all know: simultaneously displaying multiple points on a slide almost guarantees that most of the audience WILL NOT LISTEN to the speaker during the time they spend reading the content on the slide.

McKeachie's book (see image) is one of my favorite books of teaching advice that emphasizes active learning methods (and much else).

Posted by jmm at March 23, 2008 02:05 PM

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