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Active Learning and Integrative Learning Resources: Home

A gathering place for information, ideas, news, and connections regarding integrative and active learning.

Clark College Academic Plan - Goal 5: Integrate Active Learning Strategies

Introduction to Active Learning as Stated in the Academic Plan

he focus of the Clark College 2015-2020 Strategic Plan is student learning. Of the four core themes that emerged from the strategic planning process (Academic Excellence, Social Equity, Economic Vitality, and Environmental Integrity), the theme of Academic Excellence specifically directs the college to “Integrate active learning strategies within and across courses, disciplines, and programs with a global perspective.” This goal of the academic plan outlines the means by which instruction will accomplish that objective.

Active learning strategies are a key strategy to improve teaching and learning. Traditionally, higher education has operated on a model in which professors provide the sole source of knowledge, imparting information to students primarily through lecture. However, research has shown that this passive approach to learning is not maximizing students’ learning. The lecture method has proven particularly inadequate in the development of students’ critical thinking and interpersonal skills, which are essential to succeeding in an information-rich, modern workforce. 

To promote a deeper level of student learning, more dynamic instructional strategies have been developed to help students think critically and creatively, work effectively in groups, and develop personal connections to the learning process. Student engagement throughout the learning process takes learning from a passive to active process. As Ryan and Martens (1989) note, “Students learn both passively and actively. Passive learning takes place when students take on the role of ‘receptacles of knowledge’; that is, they do not directly participate in the learning process… Active learning is more likely to take place when students are doing something besides listening.”

Active learning can be provided in a variety of formats: in traditional classrooms, online, in learning communities—anywhere instruction is delivered. As well, active learning incorporates a host of different strategies, though each share the common goal of engaging students in ways that allow them to make meaningful connections to course material. Examples include integrative assignments, service learning, and capstone projects. By implementing active learning strategies in our classrooms, we acknowledge, as Plutarch did, that "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”


In 1991, Bonwell & Eison defined active learning instructional strategies as those involving “students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” In general, active learning instructional strategies result in: (a) a shift of emphasis from transmitting knowledge to developing student skills, (b) student engagement in analysis, synthesis and evaluation - higher-order thinking skills, and (c) activity-based learning. This wide definition results in a variety of active learning instructional strategies, which can be employed within or outside of the classroom, in individual or group settings. However, in all implementations, the instructor is providing opportunities for students to both demonstrate what they have learned and to receive feedback throughout the learning process.

Active Learning Increases Engagement and Retention

image of cuisine studentsActive learning supports two main processes in learning: (1) critical thinking and problem-solving and (2) completion. Students who are engaged in the classroom tend to perceive faculty as caring more about them. Working in groups can lead to developing friendships and a sense of belonging. Active learning helps students understand how course material is applied, how it is relevant to their own lives and the world around them. Take a look at some of the ideas for active learning posted in this resource. Also, consider taking a few minutes to share you ideas by completing the Idea Submission Form linked below.

Instructional Strategy: Experiential Learning

dental student examining teethExperiential learning is the act of learning through experience.student working at computer It replaces the old passive, top-down approach to education and engages the learner in a more active role. The overall intent is to allow students to develop critical thinking skills through the application of knowledge learned. 

Moreover, experiential learning allows students to demonstrate what they have learned and to apply this knowledge to real-world problems or situations. In the classroom, experiential learning can involve case-studies, simulations, experiments, or projects where an instructor facilitates discussion and promotes critical thinking skills. Outside the classroom, students can engage in real-world experiences, such as internships, clinical experiences, and service-learning projects. 

Through experiential learning – whether in online, face-to-face, or hybrid settings – students are motivated in the learning process, as the material becomes relevant and applicable in real-world situations, rather than abstract knowledge. Subsequently, experiential learning empowers students through feedback and reflection to become an active member in their learning process. Ultimately, students gain competencies needed to be successful in the workforce, including assessment of real-world problems and critical thinking skills to develop solutions.

Instructional Strategy: Interdisciplinary Approaches

Interdisciplinary instruction integrates more than one academic disciplinary framework to examine a theme or topic. By utilizing multiple frameworks, students develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of multiple perspectives on a particular issue. Interdisciplinary instruction can take place in both virtual and face-to-face settings, via class discussion, activities, projects, or assignments that require students to apply more than one disciplinary framework to analyze a complex issue.

Such an approach can be enhanced in integrated learning communities, where students are enrolled as a cohort in courses that are co-taught by instructors from different academic disciplines. In this way, course concepts are explored through an integrated lens. Interdisciplinary instruction can also occur between instructors outside of learning communities, where projects are coordinated and shared across the disciplines and between students. In asking students to synthesize different approaches and methodologies and to extend their analyses, interdisciplinary approaches promote critical thinking skills and prepare students to understand complex issues and develop innovative solutions.

Instructional Strategy: Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning utilizes a social approach to learning, in which students learn in peer-to-peer or group activities. This approach is based on the recognition that learning is a socially-constructed process. As a result, learners benefit from engagement and interaction with diverse perspectives. In a collaborative learning setting, students and instructor share the responsibility of building and disseminating knowledge. Instructors “shift from dispenser of information to manager of the learning process” (Sweet & Michaelsen, 2015).

Collaborative learning settings can be developed in both face-to-face and virtual learning environments. In all cases, these settings emphasize interpersonal and cooperative skill building. Learning experiences are designed to promote interactivity and social exchange, as students assist and encourage one another's efforts to learn. 

As a result, students develop a greater sense of ownership over their own learning. Typically, collaborative learning features an overview by the instructor to course content, which is then followed by a structured activity that is intentionally designed for student groups to develop, demonstrate, and apply key concepts. As a result of these group processes, collaborative learning promotes development of interpersonal skills, which are critical for preparing students for the workforce.

Instructional Strategy: Project-Based Learning

image of student working with electronics

Project-Based Learning is an experiential learning instructional method “in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge” (Buck Institute for Education, 2013). This outcomes-based approach focuses on establishing expected outcomes of the project, providing a real-world issue for students to address, defining a process that includes student-driven research and analysis of relevant knowledge, and providing instructor feedback to promote skill development. The result is a final product that provides opportunity for meaningful student reflection.

Through this student-driven approach to inquiry, students build ownership of their project and critical thinking skills to gain a deeper understanding of the real-world issue. Project-Based Learning can be implemented in both virtual and face-to-face learning environments, for individuals or groups, depending on the established expected outcomes of the project and diverse student needs. Student newspapers and journals, theatrical and musical performances, and capstone projects all offer opportunities for Project-Based Learning. 

Instructional Strategy: Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning is a student-centered approach, with the instructor serving as a facilitator to a cyclical process, rather than a provider of knowledge and solutions. That process involves a prescribed series of six steps: (1) presentation of a case study that identifies the problem, (2) development of a problem statement, (3) development of a "knowledge inventory", which describes what is known and what needs to be investigated, (4) generation of potential solutions, (5) reflection to identify learning issues and provide feedback and revisions, and (6) sharing of findings and solutions. Unique to Problem-Based Learning is the use of case-studies or scenarios to explore a specific issue. This method is well suited to online learning environments, where learners can participate and collaborate through wikis, discussion boards, and video presentations. Although Problem-Based Learning has its own history and structure, it is often seen as a subset of Project-Based Learning as projects can be structured to solve a problem. 

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