“Active learning” means you participate, collaborate with others, and apply concepts to the real world. It requires hard mental effort but leads to better retention and an understanding of the material that can be transferred to other situations.

To understand why active learning works so well, it helps to know that when our brain decides what to remember, it asks itself two fundamental questions:

  1. Can I understand?
  2. And do I need to know?

When you ask “Can I understand?” your brain always puts the new information on the foundation of existing knowledge. If the foundation is missing the brain has no idea what to do with it. And as a result, it will throw it away.

In other words, your brain needs to build foundational neuron connections for new information to attach to – which is both why active learning is more mental work, but also essential for learning.

When we ask ourselves: Do I need to know? Our brain separates between the material it finds worth to remember and the one it can forget. If it’s unlikely that new information will ever be used again, the brain is smart enough to throw it away. If your brain thinks that the information is needed again, say it could increase your social status, the brain will store it in long-term memory. To stay there and be easily recalled, you just have to periodically use or think of it.

To understand how active learning is applied in classrooms, let’s look at the teachings of Prof Carl Wieman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a leading proponent of the method.

There are four steps to it.

Step 1:

Prior to class, the learners read up on the fundamentals of the lesson, so they get an idea of the terms and basic phenomena. In class, Professor Wieman starts with a brief introduction and then gives questions to solve. He will have learners use clickers, a little device on which learners can answer multiple-choice questions. Alternatively or for complex problems, worksheets could be handed out.

Step 2:

Wieman projects a problem and asks all learners to select one of three possible answers using their clicker. This has two benefits: First, the teacher gets an idea about how many of his learners already understand the topic, and second, the learners are now focused on the question. They want to know if they were right! It is important though that the question is both challenging and interesting.

All this takes less than 5 minutes.

Step 3

Without telling the learners how they voted and following Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction Method — which involves questions, peer discussions, votes and group discussions — the learners then discuss the question and their answers with one or two classmates, ideally with someone who disagrees with their own opinion.

During the discussion, the learners have to come up with a reason for their answer and why the others may be wrong.

Meanwhile, the instructor is circulating around, listening in to gauge learner thinking, and answering brief questions.

Then there will be a second clicker vote. And only now the results will be shown.

Typically the second vote will be much better than the first as learners learn a great deal from their discussions.

An ideal question will have about ⅓ correct on the first vote and 85% correct on the second.

All this takes around 7 minutes.


Now the professor leads a follow-up discussion with all the learners to provide feedback, exploring the different reasoning, which one is correct, and importantly, which is incorrect and why?

Only at the very end, professor Wieman will explain the correct solution and answer follow-up questions.

Ascertain the learners’ understanding from the questions they ask, he decides if it is time to move on.

All of which takes around 10 minutes.

There are three reasons why active learning works so well.


The learners are actively working on interesting problems. And as they all voted for an answer right at the beginning, they have a stake in the outcome. That means their brains decide that the information covered is important to be remembered and are hence more receptive for learning.


By solving problems alone and in groups they dive deeply into the material. Explaining to a peer engages novel mental processes. As a result they construct new synaptic pathways inside their brains.


The explanation from the teacher comes only once the learners already formed their own thoughts about the concept.

At this point, the explanation makes more sense as the brain can connect the new information to all the thought it had just built.

The correct answers have a solid foundation.

A large body of research has shown big differences in the outcomes between passive and active learning.

In one carefully executed experiment, physics instructors taught their course in two ways: some classes were taught in a conventional style and others using active learning.

Even though the teachers were the same and the learners were similar, on average the active learners doubled their understanding when they were tested at the end of the course.

Other experiments have shown that long term retention is higher as well. Learners that take a conventional lecture that is followed by a test, forget around 90% of the material within 6 months. In an active learning environment learners can retain more than 70% of what they have learned two years later.

Sometimes teachers show a problem and then demonstrate the class how to solve it.

They believe that they can just transfer their own thinking into the learner’s head through an explanation.

Unfortunately, for new ideas, a brain doesn’t work that way. Unless the brain actively constructs those ideas within, it is as if the material was never heard.

How about you?

Have you ever learned in an active learning environment?

And if so, how does it compare to learning the conventional way?

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