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Flex Your Brain Muscles – Improve Yourself with Active Learning

Do you feel like your mental muscles have grown flabby, or at least aren’t as strong as they could be? Learning doesn’t have to come in the form of a dry, dusty lecture where you’re passively receiving information. Active learning offers an out-of-the-box way to gain knowledge through problem-solving, collaboration, discussion, and mental engagement.

This article includes details about:

·       The key differences between active learning and passive learning

·       The mental and social benefits of active learning

·       The use of quizzes as a form of active learning

·       How helpful active learning activities can be for older adults

Active Learning vs. Passive Learning

Speaking broadly, learning can be divided into two major forms: “active” and “passive.” Passive learning focuses on an educator, such as a teacher or professor, lecturing or otherwise providing information directly to students, who act as passive recipients of that knowledge. This is sometimes known as a “traditional” model of learning.

Active learning, meanwhile, involves a more engaging style of teaching. The “active” in active learning doesn’t necessarily refer to physical activity, but rather to the level of mental participation from the students.

Minimal activity, such as taking notes during a lecture, is more passive, while a dialogue between an instructor and students is more active. For example, a teacher may provide information about a specific subject and then ask the students to discuss their understanding of the topic at hand. Active learning is the sort of education model that you would expect to see in a discussion-based college class.

Stanford University’s Cark E. Wieman used his years of college teaching experience to come up with a clear list of steps for active learning:

·       Students receive pre-reading before the lecture so that they can be prepared

·       The educator gives the students a question to solve by themselves

·       After students have had a chance to think about and/or discuss the question, they vote on the answer using smartphones or clicker devices

·       After receiving the votes, the educator gives the students a chance to discuss how they came up with their individual answers

·       Once the discussion time is up, the students vote a second time, then the educator reveals the correct answer

·       With the correct answer finally revealed, the instructor discusses where students went right or wrong in their guesses

This active type of learning gives students the chance to think through and justify their answers without feeling challenged by the instructor. Instead, the students challenge each other about why they think they got the right answer. In this way, learners exercise their “brain muscles” instead of just sitting around and receiving the correct answer right away.

Fun Fact: Active learning is more learner-centered, while passive learning is more educator-centered.

Active learning can also involve students reflecting on their own progress in a subject, evaluating other students or their own discussion groups, using hands-on technology, or even acting out problems as if in a theatrical play (aka the “Forum-theatre technique”).

Another example of active learning is a jigsaw activity, in which the class breaks up into small groups, then each group has to become an expert in one specific part of the topic and teach it to the other groups.

While passive learning (such as sitting through a college lecture) is obviously very different from active learning, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. Listening to podcasts, reading books, and even watching movies or TV all require receiving information passively. It takes a sense of delayed gratification to sit through an article or news broadcast and actually take in all of the relevant information.

Still, if you enjoy thinking problems through and responding to intellectual challenges, and if you want to practice communication skills while you obtain knowledge, then active learning is right up your alley.

Fun Fact: You can still learn in an active way in a lecture/passive learning environment, such as rephrasing a chapter heading or lecture title in your own words.

Benefits of Active Learning

One of the most important parts of active learning is that it makes the educational experience stand out in a student’s memory. A more memorable learning experience means better long-term retention of whatever the teacher taught during the lesson. It also means that students can apply their own critical thinking and problem-solving skills to the questions of the day.

Active learning is also more open-ended, which means that it challenges students more and encourages them to reach a deeper level of understanding about the material.

Fun Fact: A 2019 study found that students often learn better with active learning, even though they feel like they learned more during a passive learning-style lecture.

Another benefit of active learning is the fact that it forces students to work together to solve problems in small groups. These sorts of collaboration are similar to real-life situations that students are likely to find themselves in at work. Talking through your ideas out loud can help you improve your reasoning abilities.

Active learning also introduces an element of risk-taking. During the discussion portion, students have to defend their positions and argue for or against other options. This kind of discourse increase confidence both in the learner’s ideas as well as their ability to find the right answer.

Learners of all ages need some level of structure, but too much structure can cause a student to zone out and stop paying attention. Some educators argue that giving students (especially young children) the chance to actively explore and test out ideas gives them a better chance of developing independence and decision-making skills.

Direct engagement through pre-reading, coming up with an answer, defending your answer, and reevaluating your thoughts based on what other people say all promote a deeper understanding of the topic being studied.

Fun Fact: People remember about 10% of what they read and about 50% of what they see and hear, but they remember about 90% of what they do through direct experience.

Quizzes As Active Learning

At first glance, quizzes may appear to fall under the category of passive learning. After all, aren’t you just showing up and taking your best guess at answers based on what you’ve already been taught?

However, research has found that quizzes actually go a long way toward supporting active learning. A study of student performances at the college level found that weekly online quizzes motivated students to complete required pre-reading, fostered active learning through classroom conversations, and didn’t take up time like a lot of “busy work” does.

Fun Fact: A quiz that is taken after a student has done the pre-reading for a class meets the first step of Carl Wieman’s steps for active learning in the classroom.

When done in an environment that allows for collaboration and discussion (such as through a gamified learning app like iBrainy or Kahoot!), quizzes can help learners dig deeper into their educational materials and absorb the information at a higher level.

Fun Fact: Multiple-choice quizzes can offer a great chance for active learning.

Active Learning in Older Adults

The use of active learning methods and techniques by older adults can have a surprisingly large number of positive effects beyond just mental benefits. One study suggests that teaching older adults about health through active learning can effectively improve:

·       Deep, comprehensive health literacy

·       Verbal fluency

·       Memory

·       Walking speed

·       Balance ability

·       Overall physical activity

·       Grip strength

·       Mobility

·       Dietary variety

·       Size of social network

·       Management of depressive symptoms

In short, older adults who were taught about healthy living through active learning (e.g. group discussions, exploratory work, dialogue with the instructor) had better health improvements vs. the control (i.e. passive learning) group.

Fun Fact: Over half of Americans age 45 and above pursue personal growth by learning new skills and studying new subjects.

There are plenty of ways for older people to flex their brain muscles. Online or app-based brain games, quizzes, and puzzles can all help slow down the mental decline that often comes with age. Active learning through brain games can improve memory and teach new skills or facts.

Brain games can also include a necessary social element, which is a key part of active learning. Instead of just experiencing a mental challenge all by yourself, playing a mind-bending game on a smart device that is linked to a larger social network can add an element of collaboration and team spirit.

Just like finding the right answer in a college discussion brings a sense of accomplishment, brain games can also give older people feelings of stress relief. The problem-solving and social aspects of brain games can also help fight against symptoms of loneliness and depression.

Smartphone apps and other forms of learning technology can also help an older person learn a new language or find a new skill. The process of getting out of your comfort zone to learn these kinds of hobbies can go a long way toward exercising multiple parts of the brain.

Fun Fact: Chess is an example of a game that encourages active learning by teaching focus, concentration, problem-solving, and reaction to the thoughts of others.


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