Active Learning and Why it Matters

Sasha Mathrani
By Sasha Mathrani on December 01, 2022

What is active learning? 
The term as we know it today was coined in 1991 by Charles Bomwell and James Eison in their work “Active Learning: Creating excitement in the classroom.” Bomwell and Eison described active learning as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing.”  But the framework that underpins active learning pre-dates Bomwell and Eison. The theory of constructivism underpins some of the greatest influencers in educational theorists in the 1900s, including Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky. Constructivism is based on the understanding that learning occurs when learners can actively integrate new information into an already existing schema that they possess. To learn, learners must directly process information through contextual application rather than passively receive it, and learning is inherently a social activity where learners can construct knowledge together.
Why does it matter?
Active learning works—various studies have demonstrated that when learners actively construct their own learning, they are more likely to retain and process new information. In addition, when compared with traditional transmission-based teaching, learners are less likely to fail in courses taught with active learning techniques. Active learning does not require complicated technology, gadgets, or materials but does require a context that supports active learning. 


But why does it matter now?
Active learning matters now more than ever—creating inclusive, engaging, and thoughtful learning experiences can empower a new generation to advocate for change. More learners are taking courses, and sometimes entire degrees, from virtual locations that make sense for them. This support of remote learning can significantly improve the class by bringing more viewpoints to a classroom. But it is important to ensure that the social component of learning is retained, as Vygotsky (1978) believed that community plays a large role in ‘making meaning.’ As technology evolves and brings more people together it is important to ensure that the technology is facilitating active learning experiences for learners.


How can technology enable active learning?
The technology builds context, a virtual space or environment where active learning can take place, where a teacher or instructor can easily follow the principles of active learning to ensure the most effective experience for their learners. Conversely, if not purpose built for learning, technology can force an instructor to press-fit or change their ideal teaching flow based on what the technology can do, which is non-ideal. The virtual space directly impacts how easily and effectively an instructor can provide valuable learning opportunities to their learners. 


Some questions to think about the technology include:
  • How easy is it to access the virtual space?
  • Can learners participate easily?
  • Does the technology meet or exceed accessibility standards?
  • Is the technology flexible? Can the instructor easily set up desired activities and learning flows?
  • Does it help to provide an inclusive environment?
Educause published an article that outlines a rubric that can be used to evaluate different active learning technologies. The key criteria they use are as follows:
  • Easy to use
  • Participation
  • Broadly available
  • Equitable
  • Flexible
  • Suitable for active learning activities
Please feel free to open a copy of the rubric to evaluate any technologies you might be considering for active learning at your institution.


Engageli is a learning platform purpose-built to facilitate active learning, where the interface and product features are based on research-informed best practices for teaching and learning. We were interested in seeing how we fare on this rubric, so we invited Dr. Scott Moore, former professor, and dean, to evaluate Engageli against this rubric over a series of posts.


Dr. Moore was a professor and dean at Michigan Ross Business School and Babson College. He won multiple teaching awards while at Michigan, including the Thurnau Chair from the faculty and Teacher of the Year (twice) from the students. He taught the school's first online class while at Michigan Ross, and has now worked in edtech for 7+ years. Dr. Moore is currently a partnerships director at Engageli where he partners with higher education institutions to understand their challenges with virtual learning.



Published by
Sasha Mathrani
Sasha Mathrani
December 1, 2022