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The one about Active Learning

Active learning is “…the process as building mental models of whatever is being learned, consciously and deliberately testing those models to determine whether they work, and then repairing those models that appear to be faulty.

Michael & Modell (2003


Active learning is one of those phrases in higher education that’s sometimes a little tricky to pin down. Depending on who you ask, active learning can be defined in any number of ways, all of which are usually well-aligned with the practices of whoever you’re asking. In other words, it’s one of those things that everyone does, even when everyone is doing something different. Sometimes, just asking if students have any questions, also qualifies as being ‘active learning’. After all, students need to answer the question, which is an action.

I think that we can be more intentional about integrating active learning techniques into the sessions we have with students. And in order to do that, we need to not only choose techniques that we’re familiar with; we also need to choose techniques that fit the context of what we’re trying to achieve, and the students in our classrooms.


Young, J. (n.d.). How to Make Classes More Active, and Why It Matters. Retrieved October 14, 2022.

Longtime professor Cathy Davidson is on a mission to promote the practice of active learning. And she says the stakes for improving classroom teaching are higher than many people realize. It’s not just about test scores and whether people learn, she argues, but there’s an ethical issue that sometimes gets lost in discussions about teaching.

His message was that classroom rituals are a training ground for power dynamics students face out in the real world. As Davidson puts it, he told students, “Don’t you realize that every time you don’t raise your hand, you’re learning how not to ask for a raise. You’re learning how to take it. You’re learning that you’re invisible. You’re learning you don’t count. You’re learning your opinions don’t matter. It’s not just that you’re not raising your hand because you don’t know the answer.”

This episode includes descriptions of a few classroom active-learning techniques that I’d not come across before (like Popsicle sticks, for example), which is great. But it was also a reminder that what we do in the classroom isn’t only about helping students learn new information. We can also use active learning techniques to teach students non-discipline-specific skills they can use outside the classroom.

You can read more about the episode here.


Dall’Alba, G., & Bengtsen, S. (2019). Re-imagining active learning: Delving into darkness. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(14), 1477–1489.

Ample attention is being paid in the higher education literature to promoting active learning among students. However, critical examination of educational purposes and ends is largely lacking in this literature on active learning. In expanding this debate, we consider it important to ask: About what substantive matters are students to be active? To what end is this activity directed, especially beyond gaining skills and competences within a unit of work or course? In this article, we critique and extend the conceptualisation of active learning. In particular, we discuss dimensions that are neither readily visible nor instrumental, which are overlooked in much of this literature. In doing so, we explore features and potential consequences of such an expanded conceptualisation. Drawing from educational philosophy and, in particular, existential philosophies, we show that active learning may also be partly invisible, unfocused, unsettling, and not at all instrumental—sometimes even leaving the learner more confused and (temporarily) incompetent. However, such forms of undisclosed or ‘dark’ learning, we conclude, are necessary and even vital counterparts for the forms of active learning that flood higher education curricula today.

What stood out for me in this paper is the idea that sometimes, the ‘best’ teaching and learning strategies can leave students feeling a little more confused than before you started. It highlighted the idea that learning can—and should—be about taking students into spaces they’ve never been before. Spaces where they feel uncertain and unsettled. Discombobulated, even (what a great word; discombobulate).


Active Learning. (n.d.). Center for Teaching & Learning. Retrieved October 29, 2022.

There are many different active learning strategies that instructors might incorporate into their teaching. These can range from brief interactions during lectures, activities that may take 10-20 minutes, to strategies that could span multiple class periods. This resource outlines a variety of sample strategies with tips for both in-person and remote implementation in courses. The strategies are roughly organized based on potential time-intensity for implementation. Instructors might also explore these active learning designs as they consider opportunities for using each strategy.

This page includes links to several great resources on active learning. For example, there are descriptions of a wide range of active learning strategies that you can try in the classroom, as well as this planning cheat sheet that provides a great overview of the topic.

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