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Published September 3, 2018 | Multidisciplinary

Active Learning

This text has been translated from French.

In her article, “Un monde en changement (A Changing World 2015), Isabelle Senécal evokes the importance of putting in place active learning in schools. In practice, that change requires:

  • Understanding the characteristics and the models of class (what)
  • Recognizing the pertinence of active learning (why)
  • Valorizing the initiatives of the pedagogical leaders that work in that direction (how)

That is what we will develop in the current report. This publication is expected to be revised and enriched in the future.

Being the best in the class rather than the seventh best, often means being more attentive, more sensitive to norms, more tidy, more organised. And not necessarily more able to solve a new problem in a new context.

Perrenoud, 1990) [Our translation]


What is active learning?

The active learning methods have in common of placing the students in the middle of the learning process. Their teachers can then also think about giving them a role in the planning of the evaluation.

Active learning is inspired by real-life contexts that are meaningful for the students, which can increase their level of motivation for the tasks that are suggested to them. It encourages durable learnings rather than using only their short-term memory.

Here are some examples of teaching strategies that place the student in the role of active learner:

  • Problem solving in all disciplines
  • Teaching through projects and case studies
  • Synchronous cooperation and collaboration
  • Discussions and debates
  • Roleplay and simulations
  • Gamification
  • Mind mapping
  • Peer teaching
  • Flipped classroom
  • Creativity techniques (or idea generation techniques, brainstorms)
  • Portfolios, blogs, and podcasts

5 reasons to choose active learning

In this world that is in perpetual transformation, reinventing our teaching institutions becomes an emergency in order to help students acquire the competencies and skills that will be essential for them to conquer the challenges of tomorrow. Active learning contributes greatly to this reinvention. Here are 5 good reasons of integrating active learning into your practice.

1. To develop the creativity, collaboration, and problem solving competencies

The rapid development of technology in the workplace and the impact of the participative web on society have modified the concept of efficiency at work, revolutionized the modes of communication, and transformed our access to and relationship with information. In education, it becomes imperative to increase the discipline-specific competencies through the development of other key competencies such as:

  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Information management
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving, especially if they can be concrete and realistic

2. To turn students into learners for life

Because of the speed of the changes that are happening in the different workplaces, and the openness to the world, all the students presently sitting on school benches will not have a choice but to adapt and get engaged in the continuing training process. This personal and professional development will more often be available online or through remote learning than in person. Therefore, our courses need to be able to support the ability of the students to learn autonomously, to encourage their curiosity and to make them understand its importance.

The teachers can represent excellent models for their students by creating a personal learning network and by explaining the contributions of continuing training to their professional, intellectual, cultural, and everyday life.

3. To engage students

The 2 objectives presented earlier cannot be completed without a real engagement from the students in their learning situations and the processes they provoke. Their role can then no longer be that of a passive listener or spectator. Especially those that Amine Tehami considers “fake strong students” (p.586, in French), students that maintain their performance only in traditional learning contexts that they master.

On the contrary, it it necessary to challenge the students. They must become active learners, that will constructively share the control of the classroom. This simple visual representation by Thoughtful Learning is enlightening:

Representation of the fields of intervention of the teacher and the students in a normal project based learning situation and a more active one (source).

The role of teachers will then continue to transform. They will become more like learning guides and coaches for their students than transmitters of information.

4. To encourage durable learnings

Surface learning for “by heart” exams has demonstrated its limits: holes so numerous in the knowledge that there often remains nothing tangible some months after the examination. We cannot blame the students or close our eyes any longer: the teaching and evaluating methods are to blame. And that is true from high school to university.

The Information network for success in education (RIRE, in French) relates the results of an action-research from the University of Akron that led to the conclusion that “active learning techniques lead to higher and less variable results in examined items (Lévesque, 2015, in French).

Last year, The Huffington Post in France reported the results of a meta analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that suggested that “students taking magistral classes are 1.5 times as likely to fail their exams than those who take more stimulating classes, according to the active learning methods.

Le Breton, 2014 (our translation). No doubt it would be even truer two years later!

In the era of the knowledge society, schools are now competing with everything we can learn today outside of the confines of the classroom. Our expectations are a lot higher, and that forces us to act. At the level of high school teaching, setting up the few overburdened programs will not be done easily, but we need to stop contributing to the issue by trying to teach everything.

In practice, the principles of active learning would leave a more considerable baggage to our students. Imagine that a teacher accompanies his students in the project based learning sequences suggested in this graphic:

The 4 stages of problem-based learning (source).

What depth of reflection and what impact on their society would our students have! On the contrary, the Googlable tasks required from the students are more likely to be plagiarized, as statistics on plagiarism in postsecondary institutions already clearly demonstrated in 2011.

Some statistics about plagiarism in higher education.

5. To increase the pleasure of learning

Learning, here is an action that is in essence satisfying, even fun, motivating, and valorising. Think of the toddlers whose eyes sparkle at the idea of discovering new things and their unwearying curiosity.

Without the presence of positive emotions and a favourable class climate, learning is difficult on a cerebral level.

How to install those conditions in the classroom? How to maintain the pleasure of learning that only decreases each year after kindergarten and throughout high school? Here is a real challenge that needs to become a priority at every level of teaching!

In Educational Practice

How to put in place an active learning environment?

We have selected 7 ways to do it:

1. Structuring your teaching according to the problems to solve in your discipline

  • Transpose the problems suggested by the Quebec education program or the college. programs into complex questions and challenges.
  • Contextualize your teachings as much as possible to give them meaning.
  • Sharpen your students’ critical thinking.
  • Allow them to find answers themselves and then formalize the answers with them.
  • Train them to know how to mobilize their knowledge to solve problems.
  • Use different strategies, instead of repetition:
    • analysis
    • elaboration
    • discrimination
    • synthesis
    • proof and refutation
    • deduction
    • inference
    • recontextualization
    • transfer
    • etc.
  • Move away from the recipes we were serving them [PDF].

2. Opening oneself to more creativity

  • Leave behind unidirectional, frontal methods.
  • Accept that the student have more control over the conduct of a course.
  • Offer a choice of different tasks that seek to reach the same objectives to let talents bloom (differentiation).
  • Every day, seek to make students develop new perspectives, new questions.
  • Tell them what the research community still does not know so that students see the interest of expanding on what they learn at school.

3. Focusing on teamwork

  • Create shorter but more complex learning activities.
  • Explore the various tasks, the different roles of a collaborator.
  • Encourage students to believe in their capacities and to combine their strengths to overcome challenges.
  • Make your expectations explicit.
  • When you evaluate, try the teacher-student co-evaluation, team objectives, etc. Be daring!

4. Developing a trial-and-error culture

  • Anticipate the difficulties of the students. To do so, analyse the previous steps, discuss with the students during workshops, learn lessons from your peer-teaching activities, capture the opportunities of perfectioning in your discipline, create a personal learning network on the web, etc.
  • Categorize mistakes (the Astolfi method, in French).
  • Create situations where the student will encounter difficulties that you will have identified and where they will learn to overcome them.
  • Let the student choose the level of difficulty of the task that they wants to attempt first.
  • Give students time to exchange and give feedback.
  • Integrate the reinvestment of mistakes in learning activities: make sure that a system is in place so that the student targets their objectives and experiments with the ways to reach them.
  • Multiply, for the students, the opportunities to bounce back, to go forward instead of having lost everything.
  • As teachers, never stop adjusting our teaching practice according to the data that we will have collected, as Jean-Charles Cailliez demonstrates in his real life story (in French).

5. Adopting metacognitive approaches

  • Create tasks that make the student’s thinking visible, that demonstrate their understanding of every step.
  • Bring them to think about and to verbalize his learnings, to keep traces of his processes.
  • Especially, incite them to think about their errors and to find solutions.


Ask questions, ask questions, and ask some more questions. Then, when the students face uncertainty, they will know what questions to ask themselves to overcome those difficulties.

6. Capitalizing on the added benefits of technologies for learning

  • Make the teaching more efficient through added value indicators (Viens et Bertrand, 2007, in French):
    • Access (time and space)
    • Individualization
    • Enriched feedback [PDF]
    • Autonomy and investment of the learner
    • Cooperation, collaboration and co-elaboration
    • Contextualized learning
    • High level learning
  • To support the learnings, ensure an online presence or develop teamwork, the “social presence” of the students.
  • Make the learnings more meaningful: the world is technological and the students expect to be better connected in their academic environment.
  • Expand the classroom: the students expect to be able to publish their accomplishments.

A screen is a trap for those who want to do less, but also an extraordinary tool for those who want to do more.

Sylvain Carle, ex-executive at Twitter (Source, in French, our translation)

7. Find alternatives to lecture-based teaching

If we are ourselves better disposed to learn when we can be alone and choose a favourable moment, it is the same for students. The teacher can then question the benefits of requiring the sustained attention of the students for the whole day or to expect them to work at the same pace as their colleagues. More flexible content has the advantage of allowing students to review the content often (even for months, in the case of videos).

A possible solution for the teacher is to gather the tools for a flipped classroom by:

The keys to success for the integration of active learning

There are many challenges ahead for teachers. We have selected those that appear the most important to us as well as the linked good practices to succeed at integrating an active pedagogy in the classrooms.

Knowing how to be patient

The students are not used to being so active; a lot of them prefer to have recipes served to them because it is the model that they have known at school. However, that model is not representative of all the learning they do in their daily life. The brain can adapt to new ways of learning - but that takes time and practice. Learning comes with experience.

Let us remember that even adult-aged students do not always know the collaboration mechanisms, or the metacognitive methods, or the steps of solving a problem. It is necessary to be able to teach those to the students, to guide them.

Reevaluating your relationship with “time vs efficiency”

Thinking and planning an active pedagogy takes time. In fact, it is not realistic to think of changing one’s practice all at once. It is necessary to experiment, evaluate, improve. Gradual but constant change needs to be encouraged.

Letting the students find their own answers is a much longer process, but what is the point of giving them the answers on a platter if they forget everything as soon as they leave the classroom?

As teachers, we sometimes conceive efficiency in a quantitative manner: being able to transmit a larger amount of content in the same amount of time. Some program contents are sometimes more loaded.

Learning cannot be measured in a quantitative way, but rather according to the capacity to create neuronal connections. That operation requires deep understanding instead of memorization.

Developing your expertise

Do we know enough about:

  • Learning?
  • Metacognition and how to use it?
  • The way to make students collaborate?
  • The range of problem solving techniques?

Teaching has long been a question of instinct. However, because of new discoveries about the inner workings of the brain, we recognize more than ever the importance of intellectualizing our practice and supporting it with reference frameworks that have been validated by research.

Let us not be afraid to get some new tools, to learn from science, to read, to exchange, and to question ourselves according to the evaluation that we make of our own practice and the learning of the students.

Encouraging the culture of sharing and collaboration

It is imperative to work as a team, to share our good and not so good attempts, to encourage our colleagues to give us keys to improve our practice, and to contribute ourselves to theirs. In the same way, a teacher who reinvents himself must be able to count on the support of education professionals that he has himself judged relevant to his practice.

Collaborative ways to develop as a professional are multiplying:

  • Practice communities in the milieu
  • Scouting and mutual aid on social media
  • Networking/sharing events
  • Etc.

The administrative teams have the responsibility of supporting and encouraging those “tool gathering” collaboration initiatives among teachers.

Have you experimented with an active classroom? If you want to share your experiences, do not hesitate to do so in the “Comments” section.

Useful References

About the Author

Jean Desjardins D'abord enseignant puis 7 ans conseiller technopédagogique et 5 chargé de cours en intégration des TIC à l'éducation en parallèle, il œuvre depuis janvier 2020 au Cégep du Vieux Montréal à titre de conseiller pédagogique aux programmes et à l'international. Parmi les signaux faibles qu’il a contribué à amplifier, on compte les réseaux sociaux de classe, les outils web de collaboration et la ludification des apprentissages. Les pédagogies actives demeurent un de ses sujets de développement présents, à quoi s'ajoute l’évaluation en situation authentique.

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