Active learning: Taking time to reflect on theory

Dr Wendy Garnham, University of Sussex and Dr Isobel Gowers, Anglia Ruskin University

We are probably all aware of the increasing challenge in engaging students in their learning in Higher Education settings, certainly in the return to in-person teaching. Whilst the reasons for this are many and varied, the adoption of more active methods of delivering content to students is increasingly recognized as central to the process.

There has been lots of interest in how we can practically do active learning either through providing ideas for activities and methods (such as Oprandi and Betts, 2022) or by assessing the efficacy of active learning methodologies (with a good example being Freeman et al., 2014).

However, just running an activity for our students to engage in, is not always sufficient for the benefits of active learning to be accrued. That would make active learning more of a checklist consideration. Generally, as educational developers, we want to base our practice on evidence-based theory and frameworks that have been developed over time, drawing on relevant research and scholarly activity. We want to know why it is important, what frameworks might explain its apparent effectiveness, and how it might change us as teachers, as well as our students.

In our SEDA Focus book “Active Learning in Higher Education” we explore some of the deeper theoretical issues and considerations that underpin active learning methods. For example, active learning often has a playful element; Roy Hanney asks us to consider how that promotes agency and belonging, something that many students report finding difficult in the transition to Higher Education. How do active learning methods relate to Papert’s work on social-constructionist practice? Sarah Honeychurch provides some answers. And to what extent is active learning about providing transformative learning experiences? Christina Magkoufopoulou creates a framework for exploring this question further.

Getting students to “buy-in” to active learning involves establishing expectations about what is involved and why we do this. It relies on our ability to design active learning tasks effectively. Mary Jacob draws together a number of theoretical frameworks to develop a new unified model of how we might best design these. In addition, Sam Elkington discusses the impact of hybridisation of learning spaces on our ability to embrace student engagement in active tasks, which is another hot topic as some universities maintain an element of hybrid teaching in their post-pandemic practice.

As practitioners, we need to be able to model the learning process ourselves and ensure that we are as engaged in the process of learning as our students. All too often when we think about active learning, we focus on the transmission of knowledge to our students. As well as drawing on established theory in this publication, Tab Betts invites the reader to engage in a thought experiment of their own, moving out of their comfort zone, to re-imagine a different kind of university.

Through definitions of active learning, we know that students have a role in acquiring knowledge and skills, rather than simply passively receiving information from the lecturer. Students are required to participate, interact, and reflect on their learning. Paolo Oprandi talks about this in terms of not just changing what students know but changing what students can produce from what they know, an important but often overlooked distinction. The importance of this in developing a future workforce is highlighted by Nick Leney and Helen Winter in their discussion of active learning theory applied to professional clinical practice. Active learning is not just about what happens in the classroom but about how that experience prepares them better for the world of work.

Together this collection of contributions this book aims to help fill the gap in our understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of active learning. Drawing on the experience of academics, learning technologists, educational developers and professional clinical staff, we hope that this will spark further discussions and development of practice and theory moving forwards.

You can purchase a copy of Active Learning in Higher Education: theoretical considerations and perspectives, edited by Wendy Garnham & Isobel Gowers directed from Routledge as an ebook for £13.29 using this link here.

Dr Wendy Garnham is co-founder of the Active Learning Network, a Reader in Psychology and Director of Student Experience for the Central Foundation Years at University of Sussex.

Dr Isobel Gowers is Academic Lead for Active Inclusive Learning at Anglia Ruskin University and involved in the Active Learning Network both locally and globally.

@DrWGarnham, @Isobel_Gowers

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L.,McDonough, M., Smith, M.K. Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS. 111 (3) 8410-8415 Oprandi, P. and Betts, T. (Eds) (2022) 100 Ideas for Active Learning, University of Sussex Library,

3 thoughts on “Active learning: Taking time to reflect on theory

  1. All our mature, p/t, blended learning (CertHE, FdA and Hons) students, specifically drive their own active learning in the sense that these local council staff use local/ community problems and opportunities as the basis for most of their assignments – e.g. linked to a planning application in their neighbourhood, performance of a manager in their council, provision of a new skatepark etc.


  2. Pingback: Weekly Resource Roundup – 16/5/2023 |

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