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Active Learning in the 21st Century


“Active learning lies at the very heart of modern learning theory,” commented K. Patricia Cross, David Pierpont Gardner Professor of Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, in a keynote address at a conference on Teaching and Learning in the Next Century.*   Active learning was one of six items cited by Cross that have been shown to have a positive impact on students’ development of academic and intellectual skills.  Excerpts of Cross’s comments follow:

We hear a lot today about the necessity for active learning because it lies at the very heart of modern learning theory.  Active learning is certainly not a new idea. Charles Gragg, the inspired teacher at the Harvard Business School fifty years ago, put it eloquently when he wrote, “No one can learn in any basic sense from another except by subjecting what that other has to offer to a process of creative thinking; that is unless the learner is actively and imaginatively receptive, he will emerge from the experience with nothing more than a catalog of facts and other people’s notions.”

Because knowledge is changing so rapidly today, learning a “catalog of facts” is quickly outdated. What students know when they graduate from your academies is not nearly as important as what they are capable of learning. That is why there is so much emphasis today on critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, and other learning skills that enable people to keep on learning throughout their lives.

Yet lecturing remains the teaching method of choice throughout higher education. [Research has shown] discouraging results about what students learned from a lecture even under the most favorable of conditions. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that all lecturing is bad.  There are lectures that encourage people to think, to see relationships that they had not seen before, to test their knowledge against that being presented—in short, to become actively engaged in thinking.  The criticism of lectures is primarily directed against those where the lecturer is more actively engaged than the students are.

Most of us know how deeply we become involved in thinking when we are preparing a lecture.  If the students were only half as involved, we would be grateful indeed.  I think that the most fundamental contribution of the intensive research on learning over the past thirty years is the simple fact that students must be mentally engaged in order to learn.  New information must be worked on to fit into the cognitive structure of a student even as the cognitive structure grows and changes to accommodate new knowledge.

*Cross, K. Patricia. (1996, September).  “Teaching and Learning in the Next Century,”  In National Teaching & Learning Forum: the Newsletter for Faculty by Faculty.  This paper from a conference on teaching held at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

MARCH 2000


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