Active Learning

Bonwell and Eison (1991, p. 2) offer the following characteristics of active learning,

  • Students are involved in more than passive listening;
  • Students are engaged in activities e.g. reading, discussing, writing;
  • There is less emphasis placed on information transmission and greater emphasis placed on developing student skills;
  • There is greater emphasis placed on the exploration of attitudes and values;
  • Student motivation is increased (especially for adult learners);
  • Students can receive immediate feedback from their instructor;
  • Students are involved in higher order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation).

Learning is multi-dimensional. It is not helpful to see learning as a purely cognitive process to do with being in a state of thinking or knowing. Learning connects theoretical knowledge to the world of the learner through their application and their evaluation knowledge. Similarly, for less theoretical subjects, opportunities to learn about and use skills are critical, as well as being engaging.

Active learning can involve talking, writing, playing, testing, making or simply undertaking or simulating real world activities. It can be social or independent. The use of skills, even thinking and communication skills, creates authentic and rewarding challenges for students and promotes their self-regulation.

Learning by doing can enhance a sense of becoming – the idea of forming a new future identity through the way you learn. For example, you may know everything about brain surgery, but until you have experienced making the first incision can you call yourself a brain surgeon?

Learning, and related creative engagement, comes from ‘being in the flow’, immersed, finding capabilities by witnessing your own reaction to problems. Sometimes reactions are considered and sometimes they feel automatic.

Above all else, learning is not passive – to be successful it requires affective, cognitive or active connection and engagement. Or probably all three.

A wide range of techniques are used to engage the learner deeply in an active learning environment including the facilitation of discussions and the setting of problems, projects, inquiries, simulations, experiments, and so forth. This variety of methods allows each learner to find their own purchase on their learning, making it more meaningful for them. An active learning strategy heightens a personalised or learner-centred approach and requires the learner to take more responsibility through continuous decision-making, negotiation, self-direction and, at higher levels, self-determination (Hase & Kenyon, 2000; 2013; Ryan & Decci, 2000a)

This shift in power from teacher to learner changes the basis of engagement and its aim is to stimulate intrinsic motivation and deeper, more inherently interesting, enjoyable and satisfying learning therefore (Ryan & Decci, 2000b).


Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE–ERIC Higher Education Rep. No. 1). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2000). From andragogy to heutagogy. Ultibase, RMIT. Online at:

Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2013). ‘Heutagogy fundamentals’. In S. Hase & C. Kenyon, (Eds) Self-determined learning: heutagogy in action, Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000a). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), pp. 68–78. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000b). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, pp. 54–67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020