Active Learning Strategies (Passive is out, Active is in)

The workplace today is a competitive environment. Employees within an organization look for any advantage they can gain to either improve their status within the current organizational structure, or make themselves a more viable candidate for their next position with a new organization.


Organizations themselves are looking for competitive advantages. Training is at the center of this competitive advantage. Organizations are looking for ways to train in the most efficient and effective way possible. Organizations that train efficiently have more monetary and time resources to devote to business-related tasks. Organizations that train effectively have high-performing, motivated employees. Organizations that offer robust training and advancement opportunities are able to lure the most motivated employees. In many ways, the training opportunities and training successes have become an accurate gauge of an organization’s general competitiveness.


With added attention to training, the desire for competitive differentiation has led organizations to re-evaluate how their learners actually learn most effectively. The preferred learning approach has now turned the way of active learning methods.


The passive methods of instruction which have been in place for several generations are finding themselves on the outside looking in. Lectures, seminars, and training presentations are now slowly becoming a thing of the past. Whether the motivation is to find innovative methods for training a multi-generational workforce, overcoming the financial challenges of in-person training sessions for a global workforce, or rapidly training a Gig workforce, active learning strategies are emerging as the solution.  

Taking Cues from Education

Higher Education actually took up this mantle almost two decades ago. A 1995 article in Change magazine titled “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.”  sparked the beginnings of a movement from instruction to learning.

“A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted.”

In addition, findings from a 2017 Wakefield market research survey suggested that there was already a shift underway in regards to the efficacy of traditional instruction tools such as printed textbooks.


When asked “Which of the following digital enhancements, if any, do you think would improve your learning experience?”, of the 1,000 currently enrolled college students in the U.S. (500) and Canada (500):

  • 66% (US), and 62% (Canada) responded with “Ability to take quizzes on information learned during study sessions”.
  • 63% (US), and 59% (Canada) responded with “Ability to keep track of what information has been learned during study sessions”.
  • 57% (US), and 56% (Canada) responded with “Ability to take notes and highlight content in a digital textbook”.
  • 51% (US), and 47% (Canada) responded with “Ability to set study goals and track mylearning progress”.
    versus
  • 7% (US) and 6% (Canada) responding with “None of these”.

What is Active Learning?

Active Learning is an Experiential Process

Active learning is learner-driven. Active learning is learning collaboratively. Active learning is coming to your own understanding and verifying its validity against provided metrics. Active learning takes some of the authority from the instructor and places it squarely upon the capable shoulders of the learner.  The learner, takes ownership of the learning process in it’s direction and forward progress.

Consider a time when you became intensely interested in a subject of which you had no prior knowledge. How did you go about learning? You took it upon yourself to research and explore. You formulated questions and found answers to those questions. You made connections to areas where you already possessed knowledge and began to shape a larger understanding. You started talking about it with friends and colleagues, which continued to add to your understanding. You started to see examples emerge in your everyday life. This newly understood subject became a part of your life.

Active Learning is a Broadening of What is “Correct”

Where Passive learning establishes a definition of correctness driven by the instructor, Active learning allows for multiple versions of understanding, and creates ways for learners to deepen their understanding through the processes of their peers. Where Passive learning locks participants into roles of either students or teacher, Active learning allows for fluidity between these roles. Learners can ask and/or answer questions. Learners can initiate and/or be active contributors to discussions. Active Learning allows a learning to be a teacher one moment, and be a student in another depending on their knowledge and experience.

Active Learning represents  a shift from training material dictating what should be learned to empowering learners to seek understanding.

Active Learning Strategies

Below are some Active learning strategies that can be implemented to shift your learning from Passive to Active.

Creating Relevance

Adults bring life experiences with them, so your delivery should leverage their prior knowledge to stimulate new learning. Is it teaching the learners how to solve a problem that is useful to them? The learning experience will always be more engaging if the delivery is relatable.

1. Problem Solving

Create opportunities for learners to brainstorm solutions to a given problem. This can be done individually or within a group. Open-ended brainstorming allows learners to bring their experiences to the table and cements the relevance of the problem and solution in the learner’s mind.

2. Expression Through Writing and Drawing

Utilize written reflection exercises as well as doodling or sketching exercises as an opportunity for learners to express their understanding. The writing and drawing process allows the learner to organize thoughts, make connections, and formulate conclusions as they create. It also allows the learner to internalize how the subject relates to them personally.

RELATED ARTICLE: There's No Such Thing as Bad Content: Only Bad Delivery

Spark Inspiration

Establish avenues for the learner to become passionate about the subject matter to assist in the process of long term memory storage. At the heart of each learning experience  is the desire to effect change: in a behavior, in proficiency, in understanding. Does the delivery of the content make the learner want to change? Does the delivery of the content equip the learner to change? Playing closely with relevance, inspiration should be a side effect of a good delivery of learning materials. Whether mastery of a concept or recognition of a behavior that needs to be altered, the learning experience should spark the desire in the learner to change, and instruct them how to change.

Question, Summarize, Share

The processes of questioning, summarizing, and sharing allow learners to consolidate, re-shape, and refine their thoughts.

1. Generate Questions

Being able to pose a meaningful question to a peer or colleague requires understanding of appropriate answers.

2. Put it in Your Own Words

Being able to restate a teaching point in one’s own words requires an internalization of the concept.

3. Comparative Understanding

Sharing thoughts and notes with a peer or colleague provides a venue to compare understandings, express differences in understanding, and revise your own approaches to understanding based on feedback from others.

Self-Assess

Provide opportunities for learners to self-assess can be valuable at all points along the learning journey. Formative assessments allow learners to gauge understanding of smaller concepts prior to moving on to the next. Summative assessments allow the learner to gauge their understanding of the larger cumulative concept. Self-assessment also helps to identify areas that need more attention.

And the Student Becomes the Teacher...

The ultimate test of understanding is in the reversal from learning to teaching. Being able to fully explain a subject to a peer or colleague means that you have fully internalized the topic. Empower learners to step out from behind the learning role into the teaching role.


The re-evaluation of effective learning methods is a positive step in the evolution of training. The trend toward Active learning methods is beneficial to individuals as well as organizations at large. As important as implementing Active learning techniques is, it is equally important that the training organization be an active learner as well. Employees should not be the only ones learning. Organizations can benefit from the same Active learning techniques by creating a feedback loop from learners to training managers, making employees an integral part of the planning, execution, and evaluation of the learning material. Transform the learning culture from a provider of Active learning to a facilitator of Active learning.

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