Active Learning Through the Ages (Literally)

Aristotle (philosopher), Thomas Edison (inventor) and Jean Piaget (cognitive psychologist) all had similar thoughts about learning. Can you see the common thread?

Aristotle:  Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.

Edison:   A man will resort to almost any expedient to avoid the real labor of thinking.

Piaget:  Thinking is interiorized action.

Yes, they all believed that the key to learning and learning retention is what we today would call Active Learning.

I have spent many years following the learning research literature. What I have found is that just about every learning strategy that can be shown to be effective through evidence-based studies falls within the domain of Active Learning. It comes under different names depending on the researcher (e.g. Robert A. Bjork and his colleagues call it Desirable Difficulties) but it is always the case that:

To learn you must cognitively act upon the learning materials and to retain what you have learned you must actively  re-engage with the learning repeatedly over a period of time.

So what does work? I think all of the techniques that research has shown to be effective can be categorized into one of the following domains:

Review and Reinforcement – using Successive Relearning (a combination of the Testing Effect and the Spacing Effect) to boost retention

Gamification – for motivation and reward, and at least in some studies, improved learning

Subscription Learning – using microlearning so as not to overload working memory, and to leverage the Interleaving Effect

Active Assessments – because for learning and learning retention, testing and retesting always outperform studying and restudying

These strategies are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are mutually reinforcing. A valid learning process will incorporate them all.

Coming to the Life Science Trainers and Educators Network (LTEN) Annual Conference next week? Be sure to attend my workshop on Active Learning:

Workshop Title: Learning is Not a Spectator Sport: The Science of Active Learning
 Wednesday, June 15th
2:00 – 3:30 PM
Room: Magnolia 3

And be sure to stop by the Intela Learning ( booth (Booth 431) to see the IntelaTM Active Learning and Assessment System, the first fully mobile, cloud-based learning system to incorporate all four of these key instructional strategies.


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