January 17, 2009

Active Learning

From: Chickering and Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.

Good Practice Encourages Active Learning. Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.

  • I ask students to present their work in class.
  • I ask my students to relate outside events or activities to the subjects covered in my courses.
  • I encourage students to challenge my ideas, the ideas of other students, or those presented in readings or other course materials.
  • I give my students concrete, real-life situations to analyze.
  • I encourage students to suggest new readings, projects, or course activities.

From: John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.

New developments in the science of learning emphasize the importance of helping people take control of their own learning. Since understanding is viewed as important, people must learn to recognize when they understand and when they need more information. What strategies might they use to assess whether they understand someone else’s meaning? What kinds of evidence do they need in order to believe particular claims? How can they build their own theories of phenomena and test them effectively?

Authentic Assessment

From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xvii.

Assessments must reflect the learning goals that define various environments. If the goal is to enhance understanding and applicability of knowledge, it is not sufficient to provide assessments that focus primarily on memory of facts and formulas.

From: John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.

The key principles of assessment are that they should provide opportunities for feedback and revision and that what is assessed must be congruent with one’s learning goals.

From: Grant Wiggins (1990). The Case for Authentic Assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(2).

Assessment is authentic when we directly examine student performance on worthy intellectual tasks. Traditional assessment, by contract, relies on indirect or proxy “items”–efficient, simplistic substitutes from which we think valid inferences can be made about the student’s performance at those valued challenges.

  • Authentic assessments require students to be effective performers with acquired knowledge. Traditional tests tend to reveal only whether the student can recognize, recall or “plug in” what was learned out of context.
  • Authentic assessments present the student with the full array of tasks that mirror the priorities and challenges found in the best instructional activities: conducting research; writing, revising and discussing papers; providing an engaging oral analysis of a recent political event; collaborating with others on a debate, etc. Conventional tests are usually limited to paper-and-pencil, one-answer questions.
  • Authentic assessments attend to whether the student can craft polished, thorough and justifiable answers, performances or products. Conventional tests typically only ask the student to select or write correct responses–irrespective of reasons. (There is rarely an adequate opportunity to plan, revise and substantiate responses on typical tests, even when there are open-ended questions).

Cognitive Apprenticeship

From: A. Collins, J. S. Brown, & S. E. Newman (1989). “Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics.” In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Pp. 453-494.

Effective teachers “involve” students in learning as apprentices: they work alongside students and/or set up situations that will cause students to begin to work on problems even before fully understanding them. A key aspect of an “apprenticeship” approach to teaching involves breaking the problem into parts so that students are challenged to master as much of a task as they are ready to handle. In addition, teachers are encouraged to provide students with varying kinds of practice situations before moving on to more challenging tasks, allowing an understanding that surpasses the use of formulas.

From: A. Collins, J. S. Brown, & S. E. Newman (1989). “Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics.” In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Pp. 453-494.

Only in the last century, and only in industrialized nations, has formal schooling emerged as a widespread method of educating the young. Before schools appeared, apprenticeship was the most common means of learning and was used to transmit the knowledge required for expert practice in fields from painting and sculpting to medicine and law. Even today, many complex and important skills, such as those required for language use and social interaction, are learned informally through apprenticeship-like methods–that is, methods not involving didactic teaching, but observation, coaching, and successive approximation (453).

Cognitive apprenticeship, as we envision it, differs from traditional apprenticeship in that the tasks and problems are chosen to illustrate the power of certain techniques or methods, to give students practice in applying these methods in diverse settings, and to increase the complexity of tasks slowly, so that component skills and models can be integrated (459).

Drawing students into a culture of expert practice in cognitive domains involves teaching them how to ‘think like experts.’ The focus of much current cognitive research is to understand better what is really meant by such a goal and to find ways to communicate more effectively about the processes involved (488).


From: Peter C. Honebein (1996), “Seven Goals for the Design of Constructivist Learning Environments.” In B. Wilson, Constructivist Learning Environments: Case Studies in Instructional Design.

The approach:

1. Provide experience with the knowledge construction process.
2. Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives.
3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts.
4. Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process.
5. Embed learning in social experience.
6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation.
7. Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.

From: “The Practice Implications of Constructivism.” SEDLetter, Vol. IX, Issue 3, August 1996. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory web site,

Constructivism’s central idea is that human learning is constructed, that learners build new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning. This view of learning sharply contrasts with one in which learning is the passive transmission of information from one individual to another, a view in which reception, not construction, is key. Two important notions orbit around the simple idea of constructed knowledge. The first is that learners construct new understandings using what they already know. There is no tabula rasa on which new knowledge is etched. Rather, learners come to learning situations with knowledge gained from previous experience, and that prior knowledge influences what new or modified knowledge they will construct from new learning experiences.

Distributed Intelligence (Communal)

From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xix.

Because many new technologies are interactive, it is now easier to create environments in which students can learn by doing, receive feedback, and continually refine their understanding and build new knowledge.

New technologies provide access to a vast array of information, including digital libraries, real-world data for analysis, and connections to other people who provide information, feedback, and inspiration, all of which can enhance the learning of teachers and administrators as well as students.

Intermediate Cognitive Processes

From: Sam Wineburg, “Reading Abraham Lincoln.” Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 91.

Observing contextualized thinking is more complicated than it might seem. We can try to infer it from historians’ written accounts, but this approach discloses few clues about the crucial decision points that allow sophisticated reasoning to emerge. Historians edit out from their published works their hunches and faltering first steps, their miscues and fruitless pursuits down blind alleys. Yet it may be such homey and unshorn aspects of historical thought that provide the best clues about how sophisticated historical thinking emerges. If this is the case, some way has to be found to capture people in the act of contextualized thinking–in the moments of confusion before an interpetation emerges, while indecision and doubt reign and coherence remains elusive. Here is where the cognitive task come in, an environment that allows us to study under controlled conditions phenomena that are irritatingly hard to grasp in the field.

From: John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (eds.), How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.

We use the term “learner centered” to refer to environments that pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting.…Teachers who are learner centered recognize the importance of building on the conceptual and cultural knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom…. Learner-centered instruction also includes a sensitivity to the cultural practices of students and the effect of those practices on classroom learning.…Learner-centered teachers also respect the language practices of their students because they provide a basis for further learning.

Overall, learner-centered environments include teachers who are aware that learners construct their own meanings, beginning with the beliefs, understandings, and cultural practices they bring to the classroom. If teaching is conceived as constructing a bridge between the subject matter and the student, learner-centered teachers keep a constant eye on both ends of the bridge. The teachers attempt to get a sense of what students know and can do as well as their interests and passions–what each student knows, cares about, is able to do, and wants to do. Accomplished teachers “give learners reason,” by respecting and understanding learners’ prior experiences and understandings, assuming that these can serve as a foundation on which to build bridges to new understandings (Duckworth, 1987).

Also see the American Psychological Association’s “Learner-Centered Psychological Principles” web site,

Novice and Expert Learners

From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xiii.

Prior Knowledge

From Lee Shulman, “Taking Learning Seriously,” Change ( July/August 1999), Vol. 31, No. 4. Pages 10-17. 

We now understand that learning is a dual process in which, initially, the inside beliefs and understandings must come out, and only then can something outside get in. It is not that prior knowledge must be expelled to make room for its successors. Instead, these two processes–the inside-out and the outside-in movements of knowledge–alternate almost endlessly. To prompt learning, you’ve got to begin with the process of going from inside out. The first influence on new learning is not what teachers do pedagogically but the learning that’s already inside the learner…. Any new learning must, in some fashion, connect with what learners already know….learners construct their sense of the world by applying their old understanding to new experiences and ideas.

Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.

Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized, and their organization of information reflects a deep understanding of the subject matter.

Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead reflects contexts of applicability, i.e., it is “conditionalized.”

Experts are able to retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little additional effort.

Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to instruct others about the topic.

Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approaches to new situations.

From: John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (eds.), How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.

People who have developed expertise in particular areas are, by definition, able to think effectively about problems in those areas. Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.

From: John Seely Brown, “Growing Up Digital.” Change, March/April 2000.

Deep expertise….Acquiring this expertise requires learning the explicit knowledge of a field, the practices of its community, and the interplay between the two. And learning all this requires immersion in a community of practice, enculturation in its way of seeing, interpreting, and acting. (15)

Problem-Based Learning

From: William Stepien and Shelagh Gallagher, “Problem-Based Learning: As Authentic as It Gets.” Educational Leadership, Volume 50, Number 7, April 1993.

Through problem-based learning, students learn how to use an iterative process of assessing what they know, identifying what they need to know, gathering information, and collaborating on the evaluation of hypotheses in light of the data they have collected. Their teachers act as coaches and tutors: probing findings, hypotheses, and conclusions; sharing their thinking when students need a model; and attending to metacognitive growth by way of “time out” discussions on how thinking is progressing. These investigations of the connectedness and complexity of real-world problems nurture collaboration among learners, provide instructional tasks appropriately challenging for the targeted students, and promote performance assessments based upon the context of each learning situation.

Problem-based learning turns instruction topsy-turvy. Students meet an “ill-structured problem” before they receive any instruction. In the place of covering the curriculum, learners probe deeply into issues searching for connections, grappling with complexity, and using knowledge to fashion solutions. As with real problems, students encountering ill-structured problems will not have most of the relevant information needed to solve the problem at the outset. Nor will they know exactly what actions are required for resolution. After they tackle the problem, the definition of the problem may change. And even after they propose a solution, the students will never be sure they have made the right decision. They will have had the experience of having to make the best possible decision based on the information at hand.

From: From: John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking (eds.), How people learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.

Ideas are best introduced when students see a need or a reason for their use–this helps them see relevant uses of knowledge to make sense of what they are learning. Problem situations used to engage students may include the historic reasons for the development of the domain, the relationship of that domain to other domains, or the uses of ideas in that domain.

Scholarship of Teaching

From: Bass, Randy, “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?Inventio (February 1999), 1.

How might we make the problematization of teaching a matter of regular communal discourse? How might we think of teaching practice, and the evidence of student learning, as problems to be investigated, analyzed, represented, and debated?

From Lee Shulman, “Taking Learning Seriously,” Change ( July/August 1999), Vol. 31, No. 4. Pages 10-17.

For scholarship of teaching, we need scholarship that makes our work public and thus susceptible to critique. It then becomes community property, available for others to build upon.

From: Pat Hutchings & Lee S. Shulman, “The Scholarship of Teaching: New Elaborations, New Developments.” Change, September/October 1999. Volume 31, Number 5. Pages 10-15.

A scholarship of teaching will entail a public account of some or all of the full act of teaching-vision, design, enactment, outcomes, and analysis-in a manner susceptible to critical review by the teacher’s professional peers and amenable to productive employment in future work by members of that same community (Shulman, in The Course Portfolio, 1998, p. 6).

… it involves question-asking, inquiry, and investigation, particularly around issues of student learning….A scholarship of teaching is not synonymous with excellent teaching. It requires a kind of “going meta,” in which faculty frame and systematically investigate questions related to student learning-the conditions under which it occurs, what it looks like, how to deepen it, and so forth-and do so with an eye not only to improving their own classroom but to advancing practice beyond it. This conception of the scholarship of teaching is not something we presume all faculty (even the most excellent and scholarly teachers among them) will or should do- though it would be good to see that more of them have the opportunity to do so if they wish. But the scholarship of teaching is a condition-as yet a mostly absent condition for excellent teaching. It is the mechanism through which the profession of teaching itself advances, through which teaching can be something other than a seat-of-the-pants operation, with each of us out there making it up as we go. As such, the scholarship of teaching has the potential to serve all teachers-and students.


From: Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005), Understanding by Design.

A curriculum designed to develop understanding would uncover complex, abstract, and counterintuitive ideas by involving students in active questioning, practice trying out ideas, and rethinking what they thought they knew. “Uncoverage” describes the design philosophy of guided inquiry into abstract ideas, to make those ideas more accessible, connected, meaningful, and useful. Uncoverage, then, must be done by design. (21)

From: Randy Bass, “Some Framing Issues for Our Work in Learning and Technology.” Colloquium on New Learning Environments: Plenary 2, February 22, 2000.

“Uncoverage” is a term that refers to the process by which a few key terms or concepts in a course are uncovered for students. These are concepts that are both difficult to grasp and crucial to building a foundation for future learning.

The salient question then is how different might your syllabus look if you begin putting a course together with the question: what topics do I need to “uncover” in this course, as opposed to “cover”?


From: Cerbin, “Learning with and Teaching for Understanding”

Understanding…is not simply constructing an idea, but being able to use the idea in various ways (3).

…learning with understanding is a process in which a person tries to make sense out of new information by connecting it to prior knowledge and establishing relationships among ideas…(4).

A scaffold is any support or process that helps a person solve a problem or achieve a goal which would be beyond their unassisted efforts. Scaffolds do things like: 1) provoke students to notice gaps, inconsistencies, bugs in what they have learned, 2) engage students in taking stock of what they know and reconsider what they already know, and 3) involve students in structuring and restructuring knowledge. (6)

Toward the “no clue” end of the continuum we would say the person’s understanding is incomplete, underdeveloped, naïve, inchoate, half-baked, incipient, superficial, or trivial. Toward the “deep understanding” end of the continuum we would say the person’s understanding is rich, elaborate, profound, thorough, expert, or well developed. (7)

From: David Perkins (1998), “What is Understanding?” In Martha Stone Wiske (ed.), Teaching for Understanding.

In a phrase, understanding is the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows. To put it another way, an understanding of a topic is a “flexible performance capability” with emphasis on the flexibility. In keeping with this, learning for understanding is like learning a flexible performance–more like learning to improvise jazz or hold a good conversation or rock climb than learning the multiplication table or the dates of the presidents…Learning facts can be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning facts is not learning for understanding.

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