Picture yourself in a classroom where students are not sitting at desks listening to a teacher lecture, but instead are moving around conducting experiments, collaborating with their peers, and asking each other thought-provoking questions. This is an active learning classroom. “Active learning” is a broad term that has been used to define nearly every type of learning experience. A common definition of active learning is “any instructional method that engages students in the learning process” and “requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing.”(1)
In our context, however, “active learning” means so much more than what those definitions describe. For us, it refers to student-led learning, collaborative problem-solving, creating, communicating ideas, and physically active experiences, among other examples. Keep reading for more on Quest Forward Learning’s perspective on active learning.
Learners start by doing and experiencing a phenomenon, not reading or hearing about one. Learners don’t need to fully understand a concept before experiencing, observing, or discussing it. Quests can start with learners observing, reflecting on personal experiences, discussing ideas with peers, or developing questions they want to answer. This initial experience helps to build relevance for learners. It builds curiosity and interest in learning about the phenomena, and learners are more likely to read resources and think deeply about the phenomena in later activities.
Examples: In the quest Speak My Language!, learners begin by interviewing an immigrant about their experiences learning English. In the quest Home Is Where the Heat Is, learners begin by creating and testing different insulated bottle designs in order to determine how to keep water hot as long as possible.
Learners actively think. “To be actively involved, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.”(2) Copying notes or watching a video and taking notes are not necessarily forms of active learning. Summarizing information in resources can be useful, but students are more active when they apply information, compare and contrast several sources of information, defend an argument, create something, or investigate questions they have about the world and the work they do. Bloom’s Taxonomy or Marzano’s Taxonomy are good sources for determining if tasks require higher-order thinking.
Example: In the quest Speak my Language!, learners research arguments for and against English-only policies and assimilation. In the last activity, learners create an artifact to argue their opinions on the topic, drawing on evidence and research.
Learners get out of their seats and away from devices. In Quest Forward Learning, active learning means being physically active. Learners are out of their seats, experimenting, investigating, acting, observing, and working in authentic situations. While this can’t be done all the time, this kind of active learning should be incorporated as much as possible. Active learning closely resembles experiential learning.
Example: The Tanzanian quest The Heart of Science asks learners to work in groups to practice their measuring skills. Learners measure each other, the tables in the classroom, parts of the building they are in, and water in a vessel.
Creating is a core part of the learning process. Creating an artifact is not an afterthought or something tacked on to the end of a quest to test for learning. Creating is core to the quest. Creating can be scaffolded across a quest, enabling a learner to build upon a single artifact during several activities. Learners see the purpose of the quest as preparation for creating something interesting and useful.
Example: Catapulting Forward asks learners to build a catapult, measure its effectiveness, and explore the use of mathematics in the past and present. Creating and testing the catapult is the quest. Creating isn’t tacked on at the end.
Learners interact with others around ideas and phenomena. Learners discuss, debate, collaborate, cooperate, problem-solve, and role-play with peers and experts.
Example: Catapulting Forward asks learners to work together with one or two peers to build and test the catapult. At the end of You Have the Right To . . ., learners independently create a short blog post or other artifact about a human rights issue of their choice. In the classroom, mentors ask learners to share and discuss the main points of their arguments or even debate some of the issues.
Learners continuously receive, synthesize, and incorporate feedback, improving their processes, artifacts, and skills. They critique and provide feedback to their peers and receive feedback from mentors and experts. Learners participate in discussions about their work and feedback, and determine, based on their goals, what feedback to incorporate into their work and processes.
Example: In the classroom, there are ample opportunities for receiving and processing feedback with every quest and artifact. Frequent critique sessions can be offered where each learner shares an artifact they’re working on. They describe the goal or purpose of creating the artifact, what they created and why, and what they have learned from the process. Peers write positive and constructive feedback on sticky notes. Learners share their feedback verbally as well. Learners can also work in pairs to discuss feedback on artifacts or skills.
Quest designers and mentors both play an important role in creating active learning experiences. Active learning isn’t just up to the quest designers. Mentors have the ability to make any activity more active. Mentors modify activities and provide additional activities to make learning more active in the classroom. These activities might include grouping strategies, ways to modify activities based on context, or recommendations like jigsaw activities, as well as empowering learners to incorporate physical movement into tasks.
1. Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research, 93(3), 223–231.
2. Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Jolene Zywica, PhD
Dr. Zywica is Opportunity Education's Senior Director of Learning Strategy. She ensures that the resources, tools, and experiences designed for teachers and students effectively support teaching and learning. Prior to joining the team in 2014, Jolene dabbled in teaching both high school and college students, was a high school literacy coach for 5 years, and has spent over 18 years designing and studying the impact of learning programs aimed at engaging students through active learning and technology.