Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Active Learning Strategies: Three Activities to Increase Student Involvement in Learning

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Active Learning Strategies: Three Activities to Increase Student Involvement in Learning

Article excerpt


If asked, "What does it mean to study?" many students would respond that it involves reading their textbooks, completing worksheets, memorizing terms and facts, or making note cards. While all of these techniques may help students pass simple tests of recall, they often do little to facilitate deep content learning.

Understanding science involves more than just knowing facts and vocabulary. When students understand content deeply, they recognize main concepts and understand the relationships among ideas. These ideas are then added to their knowledge frameworks, or challenge their previous ideas, causing the need for knowledge reorganization.

But the typical processes students use to study are generally not designed to generate conceptual understandings. Instead they foster the learning of isolated bits of knowledge, sometimes called factoids, which are easily assessed. For most students, studying can be linked to the common visual of filling the brain with knowledge from some authority, such as the teacher or the text. These techniques are often described as "passive learning" (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000).

In this article, we present three commonly used classroom techniques--bell work, worksheets, and laboratory investigations--that have been converted from passive to active learning strategies. We also draw on the active and passive learning research to help teachers examine the structure of typical classroom instruction (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). Although understanding in this area is tentative and rapidly evolving, it is important to connect classroom instruction to how students learn as much as possible.


Active versus passive

The problem with passive learning is that it is contrary to what we know about both learning and the generation of scientific knowledge. Science is the process of making observations, testing ideas, generating evidence, and using that evidence to justify explanations. In short, the scientific process is active. Passive learning can lead to student boredom and apathy.

Active learning recognizes that individuals have to engage with the content and with others, unveil prior ideas, make connections between ideas, and construct new knowledge from their experiences. As recognized in the National Science Education Standards, "Student understanding is actively constructed through individual and social processes" (NRC 1996, p. 29). An integral component of learning is reflecting on how we know what we know and how new knowledge connects to other ideas. In active learning students take responsibility for their own learning.

All students learn more when actively engaged (Ueckert and Gess-Newsome 2007). Active learning involves students in debating ideas, asking questions, comparing answers to what is known, using evidence to develop explanations, considering alternatives, and making ideas public while recognizing that explanations may change following discussion. In other cases, students may work in groups to collect data in real-life contexts, or apply knowledge gained in the classroom to societal problems. The power of working with others is in making thinking explicit and testing personal understanding. These strategies not only mirror many of the processes of scientific inquiry and accommodate different interests and learning preferences, but also are helpful in attracting and retaining women and minorities in the sciences (Ueckert and Gess-Newsome 2007).

Sample lesson for conceptual flow graphics. 
Teacher: Today we will begin a new unit called Strategies for Using 
Energy. We will complete a set of readings and write a concept 
statement for each section. We have practiced this skill in the 
past. Let us look at these two examples on the board as a review. 
Which item is a better example of a concept statement and why? … 
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