Why Active Learning Makes Knowledge Stick

October 14, 2013

I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.

~ Confucius

As Confucius noted, engaging students is essential for learning. When you’re actively engaged in learning, you don’t just remember, you understand. You gain a depth of knowledge that’s essential to true comprehension and mastery, not to mention an essential component of the critical thinking skills outlined by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading and math.

The learning strategies we noted a few weeks ago to increase student engagement – journaling, questioning, and peer-learning – are all examples of active learning techniques.

When students are engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialog, debate, writing, and problem solving, as well as higher-order thinking. (Bonwell, C., and Eison, J., 1991)

Active learning engages the brain

Why is active learning different? The key is the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain scientists traditionally viewed as being essential to memory, not learning. But recent neuroscience studies have changed that perception. Brain-imaging scans show that when people are involved in active learning, robust neural connections form between the hippocampus and other regions of the brain associated with activities like critical thinking, planning, and spatial relations. In passive learning activities, the hippocampus isn’t involved.

Scientists concluded that involving the hippocampus in learning through active learning activities was much more likely to lead to true understanding and remembering. This fully supports what educators see every day, and what others have observed in teaching strategies research.

Active learning ideas

Implementing active learning techniques isn’t easy. A major barrier is time. Generally, active learning simply takes more time than other teaching strategies. However, involving students in the learning process is important to improving performance. Active learning techniques can range from short and simple to long-term and complex. In order of complexity, some of ideas are:

  • Journaling
  • Small group work
  • Presentations and debates
  • Role playing
  • Learning games
  • Field experiences
  • Simulations
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