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Fostering Active Learning within Schools

There are two major forms of active learning: self-directed learning and independent work (Bredderman 1983). There are also a number of reasons that have been put in place to improve the process of active learning in comparison with the older form of passive learning. Besides, there are certain competencies that learners need to develop in order to ensure they are active learners and factors that prevent the accomplishment of active learning in schools are also discussed (Dewey 1972). This paper also tries to discuss some of the ways in which self-initiated learning and individual work can be achieved with more emphasis on teachers programs that ensure the strategies of learning to learn and learning to think are achieved.

There is no definite difference between active learning and passive learning because learning processes are all active in general (Fraser & Spinner 2002). In spite of this, active learning can be defined as the process of learning in which the learner uses the opportunities to make judgments regarding learning process. Active learning involves the application of decisions to active learning by cooperating with their teachers. This may be achieved through personal time-planning, making choice of learning goals and activities of interest and making sure learning is taken care of.

There are a number of benefits associated with active learning. For instance, the argument that it improves the student’s ability to think, make plans and take some actions (Gagnon & Collay 2001). It has also been associated with the ability to develop ownership, initiative and autonomy. It is the process where learning takes place beyond the textbook level because it requires the students to be prepared to answer challenging questions and provides a good opportunity for public speaking. The other characteristic of active learning is where the teacher shares the roles of teaching with the students, give challenge to the students to widen their thinking and develop clear understanding of lessons they are learning. This paper tries to explain the ways in which active learning can be achieved in classrooms to enable students make decisions regarding certain matters in their lives.

Background of the problem

A certain theory suggests that it is not necessary for the instructor to be knowledgeable in order to achieve the objective of constructivist learning. It has also been found necessary that instructors develop quality learning environments by not only going beyond understanding of learning process, but also inculcate the skills or reasoning and analysis to ensure construction of productive as well as effective learning process (Kegan 1994).

In addition, there have been calls for improvement in the manner in which certain subjects are taught in schools at all disciplines. There is also increasing groups of research in support of the teaching and learning through active participation of students.

There has also been concern regarding the manner in which science is taught in schools. The education system has been to blame for the ignorance regarding understanding of science by the effects such as inability of students to understand the results of the lessons they learn in classrooms. The educational system has always emphasized on the traditional passive note-taking and regurgitation of passive lecture notes. However, the required approach to learning is an educational structure that enables students develops interest in actively gaining knowledge instead of passive learning.

Literature Review

There are a number of observations that indicate that a student-centered learning is more effective compared with the traditional teacher-centered approach to teaching. A number of attempts have been made in the fields of psychology to establish the relationship between learning and teaching. A number of academic writers have developed arguments in support of the student-centered learning process. This article tries to explain some of the needs that are important if incorporated into the thinking regarding the decisions about teaching at any level of education. The following are some of the reasons why active –learning should be included in teaching in schools:

  1. Learning incorporates the development of meaning by the learner

Active learning is characterized by promoting constructivism in the learner, an important characteristic of learning psychology. By developing active learning knowledge can be constructed and not simply transmitted. It can be achieved through construction of meaning based on information that are obtained in the old materials such as models that provide the foundations for learning.  Meaning can be constructed by determining the relationship between the information under acquisition and the information that is already known. These have been accomplished in a number of situations such as concept mapping, meaningful learning and getting knowledge based on understanding. In addition, active learning ensures that there is conceptual change where old concepts are repaired and mental models are fixed

  1. Active learning has been used to achieve certain learning objectives at a specific domain in which they are learned

A number of learning processes take place through simple transfer of knowledge which can either be positive or negative despite the focus of learning being emphasized on positive transfer. Active learning has been applied in learning physiology with the assistance of the theories of transfer. Physiology is basically a study in which the main study areas are physics and chemistry. A number of students who have the interest for active learning have applied its principles in learning the physiology in chemistry and physics disciplines. Those who have relied on simple transfer of knowledge have always found themselves not understanding these concepts. In addition, students who have relied on transfer of knowledge from the teacher in learning such topics as pressure, flow or resistance have always been observed to fail in their studies. Those who have used the principle of active learning have always excelled in the fields of physiology such as circulation, understanding of the mechanism of air transfer in the respiratory system and other disciplines such as physics.

  1. Active learning has always resulted into more gain of knowledge through cooperation with other students

During active learning, students are able to cooperate, collaborate during the learning process as well as learn with their peers to ensure that problems are solved within their groups. By using active learning, a number of cooperative learning methods have been applied in ensuring that students cooperate during learning process. The results of cooperation among students have contributed to impressive results of the learning process. For example, in the discipline of computer-aided design there is enough evidence that when two or more students are involved in group work in computer assignment, there is possibility of understanding better compared with students who work individually. Active learning in physics lessons ensures that students come up with better answers to the difficulties they face while doing their assignments compared with when they work individually. Furthermore, active learning involves peer construction where it has been observed that there is tremendous increase in mastery of the concepts by the student. It has also been reported that students involved in group work have better reasoning and quantitative analysis skills. In chemistry classes, students who have engaged themselves in cooperation with other students have demonstrated high level of understanding of the subject and scored higher grades during assessments compared with those who learn the topics in the conventional ways. In the active learning process where cooperation is required, certain considerations have been observed to be fundamental in accomplishing the learning process. One of these requirements is the discussion among the students so that their understandings are articulated and the questions they are answering discussed within their groups.

  1. Active learning is improved by combining explanations from an individual,  colleagues and the teachers

Active learning is important in ensuring the effectiveness of learning a language (Phillips & Faris 1977). This is because in learning a language, the student is expected to be able to read, write and speak the language being learnt. This can be achieved by articulating self-explanations and applying them by talking and writing concerning the methods of improving learning and the process of retention.

  1. Areas of knowledge where active learning has been accomplished and the processes involved

`In the previous three decades, a number of studies have been conducted within the disciplines of science with the aim of understanding and encouraging the process of teaching and learning. This has been done through experiments in the laboratories and classroom experiments. This part of the research was carried out to make description in which active learning was used to accomplish some of the objectives that were required during learning process in the past three decades.

a) Physics

The stakeholders in the physics education community have gone through a number of education researches so that the process of understanding the discipline can be reformed (Kegan 1994). For instance, the development of the force concept inventory assessment by Hestenes was intended to act as assessment tool for assessing the level of understanding of the concepts of physics instead of the capacity to analyze questions and do mathematical calculations. A number of other inventories have been developed in the fields of physics.

Assessment tools such as force concept inventory (FCI) has been used by a number of teachers in classrooms and acted as a research tool for the educational community. Despite the existence of controversies concerning FCI, it has provided an active learning approach that ensures problems of efficacy in the physics discipline are addressed. An example of a pleasing discoveries resulted from comparison of the consequences of learning outcomes based on FCI and concerned with inventory on mechanics in which 14 courses were involved. A total number of 2084 students were engaged in interactive session. It was observed that students who participated in the interactive-engagement session performed better compared with those who took part in traditional courses by 2 SDs. It was also observed that students that were involved in the active learning courses performed better than those who were involved in the theoretical courses on the assessments of mechanics based on their abilities to solve problems. This is evidence that active learning is more effective than the teacher-centered learning.

Research in the field of physics is contributing immensely towards ensuring that development of instructional materials is improved by establishing the required materials which ensure students understand what they are learning and what they can do as well as what they do not know and are unable to do. These researches have enabled development of materials for providing instructions that assist students to be able to master the subject better.

b) Chemistry

Research has shown that cooperative learning contributes to considerably high level of understanding of the concepts of physical chemistry (Piaget 1971). It was determined that understanding of the concepts of the subject resulted from application of the concepts gained during teaching sessions to come up with arguments and counterarguments instead of coming up with conventional approaches towards understanding the subject. It was observed that if active learning was not applied, the students would apply the misconceptions of their teachers regarding the equilibrium making them not get the right concept about the idea.

c) Biology

Research indicates that the study of biology is closely related with the study of other disciplines such as chemistry and physics (Sharan & Sharan 1990). It also shows that the study of an area in biology has a strong relationship with the study of other disciplines in the same subject. Therefore, in order to understand the discipline, students need to be able to tackle phenomena at various levels concurrently such as molecules, organs and the complete organism. In order to understand the subject, students need to have knowledge of physics, chemistry as well as other subjects as they have influence on understanding of the subject. It is also an indication that active learning processes have to put more focus on misconceptions in physics, chemistry as well as in biology. It has been demonstrated that  a student’s misconception about cardiovascular conditions are caused by the incapability to understand the application of some physical concepts of pressure, flow and resistance to physiological conditions. Other instructional procedures have also been put in place to ensure that active learning is encouraged. They include discovery-based and instructional based learning as one of the best pedagogical techniques that support the learning process as possible. Some of the characteristics of the approaches include: more emphasis on ideas, concepts in place of conceptually pieces of information that are unrelated. They are also characterized by participation in activities where students are motivated to learn by doing. They also emphasize on learning the techniques of verifying and proving hypotheses in every field and also the argument that content and process are joint components of learning.

The use of active learning has also been found to be effective in areas of peer collaboration in certain topics of biology such as photosynthesis. It has been found that students who take part in photosynthesis lessons in groups usually performed better compared with the students who studied on their own.

In addition, a report indicates that learning outcomes were investigated in two cases in which two groups of students were taught the same topic using different approaches. One group was taught in the conventional teacher-centered approach while the other group was taught on the basis of constructivist approach towards getting ideas. The outcomes of these experiments showed that students who were taught using the experimental approach had higher scores compared with those who were taught using theoretical approach. The students that were taught practical skills performed better than their control group in questions that required them to think like scientists.

Research Methodology

  1. Research design and Data collection methods

A research was conducted by a group of professional researchers to determine the type of learning technique that is more effective in learning process in food test in Biology. A total number of 200 students were involved in the research. Only one teacher was involved in the experiment to ensure that the effect of teacher approach towards teaching on student understanding is avoided. The students were divided into two groups in which the fist 100 students were taught the concepts of testing for various types of food types in a sample of food in the laboratory by carrying out experiments.  The other group which composed 100 students was taught theoretically the steps involved in determining the presence of various types of foods in a food sample. The entire research period lasted two weeks. After the lessons were complete, both groups were examined on the steps involved in finding the presence of certain types of foods in a food sample. The answers were marked and the mean score for each group illustrated in tabular form. The following table shows the mean score that was obtained by each group.

Group type

Mean score

Practical group


Theoretical group


Table 1. Comparison of performance of practical and theoretical groups

  1. Discussion of the findings and areas where they can be applied

The research indicates that students who were taught using practical approaches expressed a better understanding of the concept that was being taught. This is because they had a higher mean score compared with the group that was taught using theoretical approach towards learning. This indicates that the topic of food test in biology needs to be taught through active learning. It would be better if both the students were taught practically how to carry out the tests practically.

It indicates that scientific subjects such as Biology require active learning in which a student has to show his scientific skills of thinking. Therefore, it does not recommend the use of traditional teacher-centered approach.

  1. Limitations of the research

There are number of limitations associated with the research. One of the limitations is that the study relied on the answers provided by the students even if some of them did not understand the concepts. The best results would have been achieved by the use of secondary materials such as past records of students’ performance on their understanding of the subject.

The study also involved only one teacher who might be good in practical teaching compared with theoretical teaching. There is a possibility of the claim that the students in the theoretical class could have performed well if they were taught by a teacher who was good at teaching theory.


It has been found that active learning with effective participation of the students ensures that they work effectively compared to the use of passive approaches (Meier 1995). However, no experiments have been done to prove this argument but the range of arguments proposed is an indication of the need to address the issue.  This paper proposes that there is need to reform the teaching process by applying the specific approaches that encourage active learning that ensure the needs of students are addressed. The learning processes also need to address the requirements of particular courses as well as the techniques employed in teaching. A number of options exist from which a choice can be made; this leaves no reason to prevent the commencement of the process. As a result, teachers also become learners as they teach the students.

This article has not been written without complete insight of the relevant literature and no decision is likely to be made such as going into a laboratory to carry out an investigation without current knowledge of techniques under use in the profession. On the other hand, when it comes to classroom situation during teaching process it is assumed that the only requirement for teaching is the knowledge of the discipline and the experiences in teaching that discipline are the only requirements for a teacher to be considered competent. This assumption does not make sense in class just than it does in laboratory situation.

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