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Facilitating Active Learning

Learning is an act of continual labor. It is through strenuous building that we create and remodel our knowledge scaffolds. But knowledge construction, particularly in young, malleable brains can be deceptive. This is because short-term memorization by student learners can be easily confused, particularly by advanced practitioners, as equal to building strong knowledge scaffolds. I draw on a metaphor of a true construction site scaffold. A wobbly wooden scaffold, held temporarily together may maintain structure long enough to paint a house only to fall before it can be used for any other job. A student may memorize every part of a cell, recite it perfectly on a Friday exam, only to forget every fact before the next week’s class.

            The building of strong knowledge scaffolds necessitates more than passive learning. A long-standing scaffold that enables one to paint the house year after year, requires mindful energy investment and an awareness of the job that needs to be enabled by the tool. Active learning means more than simply having the skills to pound in nails, cut boards and assemble. It means thinking critically about what job the final product will allow one to do. It means considering how the tool can be made into something adaptable, something that would allow for the painting of any house, and even a sky scraper.

            Educators’ knowledge that learners must be actively engaged in the process of learning is not new.  In 1903, John Dewey wrote Democracy in Education in which he made the plea that educators and students both must be free to construct knowledge, to build strong scaffolds that could be adaptable in any context. However, as is often true when the rush to paint the house becomes more important than the quality and replicability of the job, rickety scaffolds allow the illusion that, at least for now, the painting job is good enough. Our nineteenth-century industrial school system model, built to mirror the factory assembly lines of the first industrial revolution promoted the rickety scaffold and the illusion of learning rather than the time-consuming, highly energy requiring true, deep, applied learning. As Cathy N. Davidson writes in her book The New Education, “If Model Ts could be produced cheaply and effectively by standardization and automation (“in any color you want so long as it’s black”), then so could learning.” (pp. 43). In this model of education, student achievement is measured by exams, ranging from the typical midterm and final to the culminating standardized exam that determines college admission, medical school admission and accreditation to practice as an engineer.  These metrics of success all enable students to “succeed” with rickety scaffolds, the illusion of learning.

            Reminiscent of the “waking” in the movie called The Matrix, repeated educators have had a moment of reckoning with the illusion of learning nurtured by the industrial model of education. At the end of the 20th century, Eric Mazur had what he describes as “an eye opener”. He realized that students had an existing knowledge scaffold that determined their basic beliefs about how physics works. While students existing scaffolds vary in strength and adaptability, his assessment of students’ learning showed that instruction in his physics course did little to change students existing scaffolds of knowledge. While Mazur popularized this lack of impact of taking a college class on student knowledge, others had shown this before. Students are able to use the metaphorical “twisty tie” to briefly reinforce their rickety scaffold in order to memorize and restate on an exam. They then remove the “twisty ties”, rationalizing that those were placed on their scaffold simply for the purposes of giving Professor Z what she wanted on the exam. They can now rest assured that their rickety scaffold, once again, got the job done. The scaffold itself goes unchanged; it has not been renovated, rebuilt for greater strength or adaptability.

            Mazur’s solution to students’ lack of deep learning within the traditional, passive physics lecture hall was to adopt peer-to-peer teaching. Together, students solved problems. They learned through discussion; they had to convince one another that their approach was correct. They had to teach one another. Moreover, they had to actively interrogate their existing knowledge scaffold. When it failed to support weight, they had to find new ways to rebuild it so that the peer team could be supported.

            Learners must be actively engaged in the transformation of their knowledge scaffolds. Passive lecturing begets illusionary learning. Educators and educational researchers repeatedly show that active, engaged students succeed. In 2014, a large meta-analysis published by a team of researchers and led by Scott Freeman showed that students in traditional lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail. In every STEM discipline, active learning improved students’ performance on the type of knowledge assessments that show conceptual understanding (like that used by Mazur). This effect was strongest for higher-level cognitive skills.

Yet, passive instruction and the matrix of illusionary learning, particularly in science, continues to predominate. In 2015, Nature published Feature News entitled, “The Science of Teaching Science” by Mitchell Waldrop. Filled with unequivocal statements that authentic problem solving is the process by which students learn deeply, the article was even so bold as to take an ethical stance. Waldrop quotes a microbiology professor named Clarissa Dirk in her statement regarding active learning, “At this point it is unethical to teach any other way.” (pp. 273). Allowing students to stay in a state of illusion, one in which they believe they have succeeded (sometimes to the highest level, evidenced by an A) when, in fact, their temporary ‘twisty ties’ have, long ago fell away from their rickety scaffolds leaving nothing but the knowledge structures with which they entered their college course certainly seems unethical to me.

Passive instruction and the illusion of learning is sometimes maintained by fictitious debates such as that surrounding the definition of active learning. Educators determine that if there is no clear definition of such techniques, how, indeed, are they to facilitate them? On December 1st of 2020, a nine-page paper was published in CBE – Life Sciences Education with the purpose of systematically exploring how the term “active learning” was used in biology education literature, and generating a unifying definition. The definition provided by this research team, led by Emily P. Driessen was, “Active learning is an interactive and engaging process for students that may be implemented through the employment of strategies that involve metacognition, discussion, group work, formative assessment, practicing core competencies, live-action visuals, conceptual class design, worksheets, and/ or games.” (box 1, pp. 6). While these researchers undoubtedly had the best intentions in performing this study and were likely pushed in this research direction owing to pressures from peers to actually “specify what you are talking about before we will try it”, I question our need to define what it looks like for a student to be doing the work of constructing her own knowledge. In his book called Learner Centered Teaching, Terry Doyle states, “The person who is doing the most work in a classroom is the person doing the most learning.” (pp. 7). Strong, adaptable knowledge scaffolds take effort in their planning, their building and their tailoring to every situation.

            In fact, “Active Learning” is a spectrum of many, diverse and evolving techniques. I work continually to compile these techniques into an accessible resource called the Active Learning Spectrum but know that the minute that I have made an update, a new way to engage a learner in her learning has inevitably been revealed. Many have now formalized the efficacious techniques of learning from peers and packaged them in named modalities such as Cooperative Learning and Team-based Learning (TBL). Scholars of these techniques, such as Barbara Millis have dedicated a lifetime to describing, employing and sharing these approaches. We know they work and yet, the illusion of passive learning remains and we, active learning change agents, keep taking the bait of re-testing the hypothesis. Results sections continually read similarly to the following which was published in 2015 in the Journal of Nursing Education and Practice by Sandy Branson, Lisa Boss and Debra L. Fowler, “When compared to lecture, TBL learners scored significantly higher on the HESI® Management exam and reported significantly higher critical thinking, leadership and management skills and better overall course experience ratings (p < .01).” (pp. 59). Articles like this continue to accumulate. They give rise to meta-analyses such as the aforementioned Freeman article as well as full textbooks on what it means to enact learner-centered pedagogy. In her book, Learner-Centered Teaching, Maryellen Weimer writes, “The goal of learner-centered teaching is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed and self-regulating learners.” (pp. 10). Said another way, students learn when they must critically evaluate the efficaciousness of their knowledge scaffold, have the chance to repeatedly test it in different environments, with feedback from others and are provided with access to the tools that allow them to reinforce it, remodel it and do this whole thing again and again. Over the last decade, I have worked with my great mentor, Ed Nuhfer and a team of researchers; together we study learner self-assessment. Self-assessment is arguably the cornerstone of the knowledge scaffold for learners must come to know of what their knowledge scaffold is capable. This deep knowledge comes not from someone telling the learner what the scaffold can do but, instead, from repeatedly testing it in different conditions and with different purposes. 

When students solve real problems together in situations where they are allowed to fail and try again, they build strong, adaptable scaffolds. Once again, we have known this for a long time. In his 1970 book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire writes, “They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world.” When students work together to solve problems that are relevant to their lives, their knowledge scaffolds are truly tested. They must “bear weight” under continually changing circumstances. I sometimes indulge myself in envisioning a conversation between Paolo Freire and Neurologist, Molecular Biologist, and author of the book Brain Rules, John Medina. The latter would reinforce the former with his understanding that the brain works best in outdoor environments while solving constant, relevant problems. Students in my Microbiology Capstone course pair with community partners and work to solve real problems such as finding phytoremediative solutions to toxic ground water leaching from a decommissioned landfill here in our own state of Wyoming. Throughout this problem-solving process, students repeatedly realize the inadequacy of their existing scaffolds. They meet with failure, try again and together they build a new, lasting and highly adaptable scaffold.

Our institutions of higher education, modeled on the needs of the first industrial revolution have maintained nearly the same educational approaches as were utilized in the mid-nineteenth century even as we are on the brink of a new era that author Klaus Schwab describes in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. The problems that we face are multiplistic, complex and certainly not easily solved by any one discipline. To educate scholars in this landscape, we must not only engage students in their own learning but we must also provide environments in which they can develop scaffolds of the holistic bodymind. That is, we need to evolve our understanding of knowledge scaffolds to braid together the cognitive, affective and physical domains. Schwab posits that we must apply four different types of intelligence: the mind, the heart, the soul and the body. It is of particular interest that he calls for this at the end of a book that speaks about artificial intelligence 17 times! Yet, it makes perfect sense that as our learning becomes more digital, our learners must become more and more human and to promote this, we must utilize active learning in online environments to enable students to build knowledge scaffolds that integrate computational, digital and virtual materials. Perhaps it will be these virtual environments that will help us finally respond to the 1903 call by John Dewey that both teacher and learner have freedom of the mind, freedom to construct, remodel, test and build strong adaptable scaffolds.


Readings Informing this Writing

Branson, S. Boss, L., & Fowler, D.L. (2015). Team-based learning: Application in undergraduate baccalaureate nursing education. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice. 6(4). 59-64.

Davidson, C. (2017). The New Education. New York: Basic Books. (To learn more:

Dewey, J. (1903). Democracy in Education. The Elementary School Teacher. IV(4). 193-204. Available:

Driessen, E.P., Knight, J. K., Smith, M.K. & Ballen, C. J. (2020). Demystifying the Meaning of Active Learning in Postsecondary Biology Education. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 19(4), 1-9.

Doyle, T. (2011) Learner Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus. (To learn more: )

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. (2014). Active learning increases student performances in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Schwab. K. (2016). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. New York: Penguin Random House L.L.C. (To learn more: )

Mazur, E. Confessions of a Converted Lecturer. A paper accompanying a lecture delivered in May 2007 in Oporto, Portugal, adapted from Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual (Prentice Hall, 1997). Available:

Medina, J. (2014) Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle, Washington: Pear Press. (To learn more:

Millis, B. J. (2010). Cooperative Learning in Higher Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus. (To learn more:

Waldrop, M. M. (2015). The Science of Teaching Science. Nature, 523(7560), 272–274.

Watson, Rachel M., Edward Nuhfer, Kali Nicholas Moon, Steven Fleisher, Paul Walter, Karl Wirth, Christopher Cogan, Ami Wangeline, and Eric Gaze. "Paired Measures of Competence and Confidence Illuminate Impacts of Privilege on College Students." Numeracy 12, Iss. 2 (2019): Article 2. DOI: 

Weimer, M. E. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons. (To learn more:

LAMP Coffee & Curriculum Blog Reading

If you would like to hear Rachel read the above blog post out loud, check out this YouTube video!

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