#LTHEchat 261 Active Learning, led by Mary Jacob @MaryJacobTEL1 and Dr Wendy Garnham @DrWGarnham

The logo consists of a roundel of four figures representing people waving, in different colours. Underneath is written 'Active Learning Network;.
Active learning Network Logo

For anyone involved in teaching and learning in Higher Education, you won’t fail to have witnessed the proliferation of research advocating the value of “active learning”. Not only has it been held responsible for eliminating gender achievement gaps in some subjects (e.g. Theobald et al., 2020) and helping students to feel more engaged with their studies (Chiu and Cheng, 2017) but it has also been considered instrumental in reducing mental health issues associated with university level study such as anxiety (Adkins-Jablonsky et al., 2021) as well as reducing stress around assessments (e.g. Khan and Madden, 2018).

Wendy’s personal journey with active learning

One of the positive consequences of this focus on active learning has been the increasing development and availability of new tools to aid learning. The Global Festival of Active Learning for example, is due to have its 3rd annual run later this month with an international collection of contributions showcasing active learning methodology. I won’t hesitate to say that I am always keen to explore new methods and ideas to engage my learners. 

However, given the expansion of this field, it is thought-provoking to see that we still lack a clear definition of what active learning actually is. Is it synonymous with playfulness? When we try to identify what active learning might look like in practice, it becomes even more challenging. In many cases, we completely overlook the important question of whether there is a synergy between our assumptions about active learning and the experience of our students.  Our questions on #LTHEchat this week will explore some of these issues, stemming from a recent SEDA Focus book exploring the theoretical aspects of this pedagogical approach (Garnham and Gowers, 2023). 

Mary’s personal journey with active learning

I’ve long been an advocate, but have noticed that different people often have very different conceptions of what active learning actually is. I have been inspired by the Active Learning Network. When the pandemic began, I wanted to support our teaching staff in using active learning online, so I designed a training session drawing upon seminal work such as Bonwell & Eison (1991), Michelline Chi’s ICAP model (2009), and the online student engagement framework (Redmond, et al, 2018). In considering such sources, my own conception of active learning came into clear focus as Active Cognitive Tasks (ACTs). This became the basis for my contribution to the SEDA Focus book. Here is an outline of what I mean by ACTs:

A list of active cognitive tasks is divided in to three sections of Active, Cognitive and Task. Under 'Active': Active, not passive; Students own the learning process; Mutual trust and student agency. Under 'Cognitive': not just doing but thinking; Construct mental schemas by reinforcing connections; Meaningful long-term memory; 'Effortful learning' (Brown et al, 2014) or 'Desirable difficulty' (Bjork, 1994). Under 'Task': Carry out a task; Not just absorb information or perform an operation by rote; not the content but what they do with it that matters
Summary of active cognitive tasks


Adkins-Jablonsky, S. J., Shaffer, J. F., Morris, J. J., England, B., & Raut, S. (2021). A tale of two institutions: analyzing the impact of gamified student response systems on student anxiety in two different introductory biology courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(2), ar19.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University

Bjork, R. A. (1994). ‘Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings,’ Metacognition: Knowing about knowing, edited by Janet Metcalfe and Arthur Shimamura, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 185–205.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.  

Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, 1, 73-105. 

Chiu, P. H. P., & Cheng, S. H. (2017). Effects of active learning classrooms on student learning: a two-year empirical investigation on student perceptions and academic performance. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(2), 269-279.

Garnham, W. A., & Gowers, I. R. (Eds.). (2023). Active Learning in Higher Education: Theoretical Considerations and Perspectives. Taylor & Francis.

Khan, A., & Madden, J. (2018). Active learning: a new assessment model that boost confidence and learning while reducing test anxiety. International Journal of Modern Education and Computer Science, 10(12), 1.

Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning, 22(1), 183–204.  

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., … & Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476-6483.


A photograph of Wendy, a white woman with fair hair smiling at the camera.
Dr Wendy Garnham

Wendy Garnham is a Reader in Psychology at University of Sussex. She is a National Teaching Fellow and co-founder of the Active Learning Network. Wendy is a Fellow of SEDA and co-hosts both a Community of Practice for both Transitions and more recently, Outdoor Learning. Wendy is currently Acting Head and Director of Student Experience for the Central Foundation Year programmes at Sussex.

Mary Jacob, white woman with bright blue hair and wearing glasses faces the camera and has a beaming smile.
Mary Jacob

Mary Jacob is a Lecturer of Learning and Teaching at Aberystwyth University. She is based in the Learning & Teaching Enhancement Unit where she runs the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PGCTHE) scheme. She holds SFHEA and CMALT, and is a member of the Active Learning Network. Mary contributes to the broader community of practice through curating the Weekly Resource Roundup, presenting webinars at events such as the #DigiEduWebinars series, and participating on Twitter as @MaryJacobTEL1

Missed the chat? No problem! Here’s a link to the Wakelet of curated tweets for you to catch up with the chat.

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