Group discussion is an active learning technique.

Group discussion is an active learning technique.

Change is often premised on people learning new methods, frameworks or techniques.  For any change to be implemented effectively, change agents need to understand the most effective way of helping learners learn.  Active learning is a theory of teaching based on the belief that learners should take responsibility for their own learning.  Techniques that support this type of teaching exist on a continuum that begins with merely fostering active listening, to interactive lectures and finally to using investigative inquiry techniques. Learning using games is a form of active learning (see for examples of Agile games).  Using active learning requires understanding the four basic elements of active learning, participants’ responsibilities and keys to success.

There are four basic elements of active learning that need to be worked into content delivery.

  1. Talking and listening – The act of talking about a topic helps learners organize, synthesize and reinforce what they have learned.
  2. Writing – Writing provides a mechanism for students to process information (similar to talking and listening). Writing is can used in when groups are too large for group or team level interaction or are geographically distributed.
  3. Reading – Reading provides the entry point for new ideas and concepts. Coupling reading with other techniques such as writing (e.g. generating notes and summaries) improves learner’s ability to synthesize and incorporate new concepts.
  4. Reflecting – Reflection provides learners with time to synthesize what they have learned. For example providing learners with time to reflect on how they would teach or answer questions on the knowledge gained in a game or exercise helps increase retention.

Both learners and teachers have responsibilities when using active learning methods. Learners have the responsibility to:

  1. Be motivated – The learner needs to have a goal for learning and the will to expend the effort needed to reach that goal.
  2. Participate in the community – The learner needs to support the needs of other learners in games, exercises and discussions.
  3. Be able to accept, shape and manage change – Learning is change; the learner must be able to incorporate what they have learned into how they work.

While by definition, active learning shifts the responsibility for learning to learner not all of the responsibility rests on the learner. Teachers/Organization have the responsibility to:

  1. Set goals – The teacher or organization needs to define or identify the desired result of the training.
  2. Design curriculum – The trainer (or curriculum designer) needs to ensure they have designed the courseware needed to guide the learner’s transformations.
  3. Provide facilitation – The trainer needs to provide encouragement and help make the learning process easier.

As a trainer in an organization pursuing a transformation, there are several keys to successfully using active learning.

  1. Use creative events (games or other exercised) that generate engagement.
  2. Incorporate active learning in a planned manner.
  3. Make sure the class understands the process being used and how it will benefit them.
  4. In longer classes, vary pair, team or group membership to help expose learners to as diverse a set of points-of-view as possible.
  5. All exercises should conclude with a readout/presentation of results to the class.  Varying the approach (have different people present, ask different questions) taken during the readout help focus learner attention.
  6. Negotiate a signal for students to stop talking. (Best method: The hand raise, where when the teacher raises his or her hand everyone else raises their hand and stops talking.)

While randomly adding a discussion exercise at the end of a lecture module uses an active learning technique, it not a reflection of an effective approach to active learning.  When building a class or curriculum that intends to use active learning, the game, and exercises that are selected need to be carefully chosen  to elicit the desired learning impact.