Active Learning: A Proposed Solution to Traditional Education

Sometimes it is difficult researching topics in the psychology of education to generate enough information to write a blogs. This was not one of those topics. Active learning in the classroom has become somewhat of a fad in primary and secondary education, and because of this, more and more research is being conducted in this area of psychology. It was during the research portion of this blog that I realised that Psych 3850-C was based on an active learning format. While many traditional educators have stuck to their guns, claiming that there isn’t any time in the curriculum for what is proposed in active learning, many other educators find active learning to be a very useful tool to put the enjoyment and intrinsic ideologies back into education.

What is active learning? Active learning is simply applying the standard curriculum to a system of education in which there is more engagement from the students, and less rigid participation in the lecture -> notes -> revision -> standardized testing format of traditional education. Traditional education has a focus on finding the easiest, and most efficient way to educate children. The truth is that designing a classroom that involved active learning would not take that much more time! Especially when you consider the benefits of how much more learning gets done when teachers choose to promote active learning. (Li & Sethi, 2006)

The best academic articles for active learning are the ones that seek to quantify how much more useful active learning is over the traditional model. Van Amburgh, et al. wrote an academic paper titled “A Tool for Measuring Active Learning in the Classroom.” The article’s introduction states that the researchers involved in the paper already believed that active learning was superior to the traditional model in place. The reachers still carried an interest in figuring out exactly how successful active learning was in the education of a  student. The group of researchers developed a fairly simple mechanism called the Active Learning Inventory Tool that was tested and re-tested in nine different post-secondary classrooms, each with over 100 students. Seven of the instructors were interviewed following their lecture using a scripted interview guide to elicit perceptions of their lesson that included: their definition of active learning, the perceived merits of active learning in the classroom, the types of active-learning activities used in the lecture, the rationale for the use of the specific active-learning activities chosen, the estimated amount of class time that was devoted to active-learning activities, the estimated time required to prepare the lesson and active-learning activities, any perceived barriers to the use of active learning, and the impact of using active-learning
techniques on the amount of content covered. The following outcomes were used to measure agreement among the observers using the Active-Learning Inventory Tool and between the observers and each instructor: number of active-learning episodes used, time per active-learning episode, and the number of different active-learning episodes included in each lecture. (Van Amburgh, et al. 2007)

psych pp

Using the results of the experiment, the researchers were able to create this Active Learning Inventory Tool, which is able to be used at any educational level (primary, secondary, post secondary), and if performed by the administration of the school, can be used to evaluate exactly how well this new system is working. The ALIT also compiled the active learning methods that were most effective for the intake and memorization of information.

The last source I found also took their research of active learning to the next level. In tandem with the agreement that active learning works, the researchers realized that active learning will only be as successful as the teacher who utilizes it. In other words: a crappy teacher is still going to yield crappy results, regardless of the teaching method being used. Rotgans & Schmidt measured the students’ as well as administrators’ evaluations of the teachers’ performance based on social
congruence, subject-matter expertise, and cognitive congruence, and how much these subject areas contributed to students’ situational interest. It turned out that social congruence and subject matter expertise are not directly related to situational interest, but are two variables that do contribute to the teacher’s cognitive congruence (or how well they are able to get students to understand the concepts that are being taught). Not surprisingly,  being friendly, socially and emotionally connected with the students as
well as having a large body of knowledge about a topic are highly predictive of how cognitively congruent a teacher is. (Rotgans & Schmidt, 2010)

psych poopoo

The findings of Rotgans & Schmidt revealed two conclusions. First, their data suggests that teacher characteristics and in particular teacher’s cognitive congruence have a significant influence on students’ situational interest; they explained about 20% of the
variance in situational interest. Second, there are ways to correct a teacher with poor cognitive congruence. Either adjust the teacher’s social congruence, or the way they relate to the kids, or increase the teacher’s expert knowledge. Because situational interest is so formulaic, it stands to reason that correcting X or Y could change the result of Z.

The purpose of this blog was not to establish whether active learning is effective (the current research speaks for itself), but to instead investigate what the results of active learning is on our student population. At any academic level, it is important to be able to test the result of using a different educational model, and to be able to understand how to manipulate the learning outcomes of the different model for the best possible academic performance.

Academic Sources:

Li, M., & Sethi, I. K. (2006). Confidence-based active learning. IEEE Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, 28(8), 1251–1261.

Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2011). The role of teachers in facilitating situational interest in an active-learning classroom. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(1), 37–42.

Settles, B. (2012). Active Learning. Morgan & Claypool Publishers.

Van Amburgh, J. A., Devlin, J. W., Kirwin, J. L., & Qualters, D. M. (2007). A tool for measuring active learning in the classroom. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 71(5), 85.


4 thoughts on “Active Learning: A Proposed Solution to Traditional Education

  1. As a future educator I am a big advocate for active learning. Traditionally active learning was really pushed in order to accommodate all learning styles especially those hands-on learners. However, now that we know that we have been lied to our whole lives about having a certain “learning style” does active learning still have a place in the classroom? I would argue yes of course it does. I think allowing students to interact with materials and experience it for themselves instead of a teacher just telling them how it works is an excellent instructional method that can be used in the classroom to enhance learning.
    Thanks for posting!


  2. This was an expertly discussed post. I am surprised at the weight of social congruence in figure 2. It being recorded as .28 appears to suggest that if active learning settings such as a discussion based classroom where to be instigated an increase in participation would be likely to occur on the weight of social congruence alone. I’d say that if accurate the participation change could be statistically significant.


  3. Hey 🙂 I appreciate your research into ALIT. I must admit, I have always been so comfortable in the generic “go to lecture -> write down facts -> repeat facts back for exam -> literally forget everything” process all throughout university. That is just the way that things pan out with classes as large as 200-300 students. Teachers just don’t seem to care as much, and we can’t exactly blame them. If I was the professor of a Biology 1010 course, I would find it tough to interact with every student and assure them that I care about their academic success. However, if professors made a slightly higher effort in trying to get students to approach them, things could be different. Some professors that I have had seemed so uninterested. They have their own research on their minds, which makes sense, but if they were more approachable then they could positively shape a student’s academic life. Professors can demotivate students easily without being aware they are doing it.


    • Absolutely! Using active learning in a post-secondary class with a class size of over 200 presents a real problem: How do we cater to the individual when there’s barely enough time to get through the course outline!? I think this comes down, again, to the systemic nature of traditional education. Because the format of a university class is “Two midterms, maybe an essay, and a final”, there is absolutely no time for discussion. But even in post secondary education, I found that they manage to fit aspects of active learning into the curriculum. Math, physics and calculus classes have tutorials, which are great to go to if you, the individual, is having trouble in the class size of 200.BEcause the people running these tutorials are generally just grad students themselves, they have an easier idea of how to appeal to their students, and allow discussion for students who are confused. The next step is moving conversation into the classroom. Perhaps a mandatory question period at the end of class? The possibilities are endless.


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