Active learning promotes memory and development

Learning experiment

Learning mathematics with sounds – this interactive experiment helps. (Image: Sahar Coston-Hardy)

How do schoolchildren and students learn best? In view of the interruption of regular school operations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this question is becoming more explosive. Educational researchers have now gathered findings on which methods can optimally support young people in acquiring skills – in the classroom, at university or in everyday life. They all agree: Particularly effective are methods of active learning in which students are involved through discussions, interactive technologies and their own experiments.

In classic lessons at school or university, a teacher presents the students with content that they passively absorb while they sit quietly in the classroom. The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted this concept: face-to-face events were not possible for months in many countries around the world; the pupils and students had to work on content at home – sometimes with insufficient support. “The interruption has also sparked widespread discussion of what high quality teaching and learning can look like,” writes Brad Wible, an editor for Science magazine.

New strategies for teaching and learning

Various teams of educational researchers have now shown in several science articles which known and novel methods are particularly well suited for learning. In doing so, they all rely on strategies that are based on involving the learners and encouraging them to actively deal with the content. According to the authors, these strategies not only make it easier for individuals to better understand and memorize content, but can also compensate for social inequalities.

A team headed by Elli Theobald from the University of Washington in Seattle has found that in classes that offer students many opportunities for active learning, the differences between students from socially more or less privileged homes are less than in classes that mainly focus on classical , set passive learning. “In classes that spent two-thirds or more of all class time in active learning, the difference between students in exam scores decreased by 42 percent and in passing rate by 76 percent compared to classes that did not use active learning,” said the explorers.

Equal opportunities and freedom from fear

The researchers attribute the improved equality of opportunity in active learning not only to the fact that this method promotes understanding of the content particularly well. Rather, they assume that the social learning atmosphere also plays a role. “Students who belong to minorities in particular benefit disproportionately from a culture of integration and belonging, in which the teachers respect the learners and are committed to their success and in which the group work creates a feeling of common goals and community,” they write.

Fear-free learning could also play a role, emphasize Katelyn Cooper and Sara Brownell from Arizona State University in Tempe. According to the researchers, both active and passive learning could lead to stressful situations that stand in the way of successful learning. With passive learning, for example, the uncomfortable feeling can arise that you may not have understood something as the only one. In active learning, this is avoided by exchanging ideas with others. On the other hand, situations in which groups have to present their results in front of the plenary and are graded for this can create stress and make the learning atmosphere more uncomfortable. The researchers suggest that teachers reconsider how such situations can be avoided. “It is important to design active learning in such a way that students’ fear of negative assessment is minimized in order to maximize student benefit,” said Cooper and Brownell.

Active learning more effective than expected

According to a team led by Louis Deslauriers from Harvard University in Cambridge, under optimal conditions, active learning actually brings more than the learners themselves believe: In one experiment, the researchers had a group of students actively work on content in small groups, while another group gave a classic lecture listened to the same topic. In the next meeting the groups were swapped. The result: Although the students had the subjective impression that they had learned more in the lecture, they were able to better remember the content they had developed themselves.

There are many different approaches to the question of exactly how active learning can be designed. According to Daniel Schwartz of Stanford University in California, it is important to give learners plenty of opportunities to be physically active while studying. It has been shown that exercise promotes creativity and problem-solving skills. In addition, according to Schwartz, students can better imagine many facts if they describe them not only with words but also with their hands.

Unstructured activities encourage learning

A team led by Yuko Munakata from the University of California at Davis also emphasizes that in addition to structured activities with a fixed learning goal, unstructured learning time is also important. “Less structured activities allow children to explore, be curious, make decisions, and set goals, with adults providing guidance and feedback, but not explicit structured guidance. A less structured time can also offer opportunities to observe others, to learn from them and to deal with them, ”write the researchers.

To enable such free learning, various research teams have developed new concepts that go well beyond the classroom. For example, with scientific advice, a bus stop in West Philadelphia was redesigned to encourage children to play, explore, move around and interact with their parents. A new learning system that combines artificial intelligence with experiments in the real world also enables children to research for themselves and receive stimulating feedback – whether in the classroom or in the museum. “There is no such thing as one approach to active learning,” sums up Wible. “Instead, we see a rich and evolving portfolio of methods and ideas that support various avenues for more effective learning.”

Source: Science, doi: 10.1126 / science.abj9957

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