Academic journal article NAER - Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research

Telling Active Learning Pedagogies Apart: From Theory to Practice

Academic journal article NAER - Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research

Telling Active Learning Pedagogies Apart: From Theory to Practice

Article excerpt


Families, teachers, administrators, academics, and policy makers are continuously looking for approaches to increase student learning. The tools they use to accomplish this goal include: setting higher standards, developing new curricula, challenging current methods and pedagogies, to quote but a few. While not new, promotion of active learning pedagogies is gaining momentum in the academic literature and policy arenas as a viable solution for increased student achievement. The Finnish National Board of Education has required, for example, that all primary and secondary school subjects in at least one classroom period be taught through the active interdisciplinary, "phenomenon based" learning pedagogy, by the end of 2016 (Finnish National Board of Education, 2015). Even authors in the cognitive science discipline suggest that classrooms with an active learning approach can increase student motivation, knowledge retention, and content transferability (Michael, 2006; Norman and Schmidt, 1992; Vosniadou, Loannides, Dimitrakopoulous, & Papademetriou, 2001). However, it is almost impossible to understand what an "active learning pedagogy" is from the education literature, as the term is used to describe methods and philosophies alike (Prince, 2004). Even more problematic is comparing, contrasting, and evaluating said theories in practice.

This article seeks to determine whether classification of active learning pedagogies would be useful in comparing and contrasting pedagogies, in theory and practice. Through two distinct lenses, theoretical and practical, this article looks at five distinct active learning pedagogies: Problem-based; Discovery-based; Inquiry-based; Project-based; and Case-based learning. The theoretical study is presented as a comparative analysis informed from a traditional literature review. The five pedagogies are compared based on constructivist traits that are described in the literature as integral to their theory.

To provide a second, more practical lens, a systematic literature review was conducted using the abstracts from a different set of articles which is presented through a content analysis. New articles were selected that focused on self-identified examples of active learning environments in practice. These descriptions were then compared against the constructivist traits used in the comparative analysis and similarities and distinctions were noted between the theoretical and practical explanations. The final section of this paper provides a discussion of the usefulness of classifying active learning pedagogies, using elements of constructivism as markers for comparison, and where research can go from here.


Using evidence presented in case studies and quantitative research to develop theories in education, is a mode of research that aims to move past theory defining to construction (i.e., theory building literature see Hoon [2013], Locke [2007] or Eisenhardt and Graebner [2007], amongst others, for a discussion on this subject). To take steps towards theory construction this article looks at the discourses surrounding each active learning pedagogy in the literature, both theoretical and practical, through two lenses and contrasts those descriptions. By approaching active learning pedagogies through an inductive and deductive lens, this article seeks to provide a more comprehensive picture of active learning pedagogies to possibly define and classify each pedagogy to make research and findings more generalizable.

2.1 Literature Review and Comparative Analysis

In section 3, a traditional literature review is presented through a comparative analysis of five active learning pedagogies. Key articles on active learning pedagogies as theories were selected and described. The descriptions of five pedagogies were classified on 6 elements which represent comparative indicators identified as being emblematic of the constractivist epistemology where active learning pedagogies belong: learner-centeredness (i. …

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