Cognitive science has shown that successful learning is inextricably connected to what students do with new information, rather than simply what they read or hear (Biggs and Tang, 2011). This necessitates a shift in teaching to include genuine active and interactive learning.  But what do we mean by active and interactive learning and how does one begin such a shift?

Let’s begin with an analogy

If you want to teach a group of people a complex skill, such as learning to play basketball, no amount of talking about basketball or watching others play will result in truly skilled players. It is only once the learners take the ball into their own hands, pass it around and try shooting hoops that they will develop mastery of basketball skills. In other words, they need to become active, interact with others, test what they know and practice in order to increase their ability to play. It also suggests that instructors need to be facilitators of learning in addition to subject matter experts.

Active learning -> conceptual activity

Active learning means that students either engage actively with the content or with other people in order to process information, instead of passively absorbing information through listening and reading. This engagement helps to deepen learning by converting information (facts) to knowledge or understanding. Students gain some control over the material and it helps them to construct meaning and relevance.

Whereas being active can also refer to physical activity, such as manipulating equipment or simple movement, we are concentrating on conceptual activity, which is interacting with and processing ideas and concepts. While in the case of basketball, interactivity refers to physical activity, in higher learning this is the part where the coach metaphorically hands over the ball and students really tackle the concepts.

Engaging with others conceptually is good for learning

We are using the term interactivity to refer to the act of students engaging conceptually with other students in order to promote learning. Conceptual activity can be completed individually through personal reflection, writing, individually answering questions, solving equations privately or evaluating the work of others. However, when students engage in conceptual activity as a group, for example through discussion or group work, there are added benefits. There is always a physical component to group interaction. When interacting with others conceptually, one must be physically active as well, either by talking, moving or doing.

Added benefits of interactivity

Group-based interaction has additional social components that benefit learning. By engaging with others and voicing their opinions students need to become aware of what they know and don’t yet know. They are forced to prioritise their responses and will receive feedback from their peers.  They can get answers to their questions and provide answers to the questions of others which helps them gain confidence. In addition, there are a host of trans-disciplinary competencies, such as advanced communication skills and critical thinking, that are developed when students work together on conceptual activities. Think of the team of basketball players debating strategy, communicating about where to pass next and giving one another feedback and praise.

Interactivity works best when aligned to learning objectives

The effectiveness of interactivity is highest when the given task is directly aligned to the desired learning objectives. Activities should be set at the right challenge level (not too hard or too easy), encourage students to practice the cognitive (or physical) skill they are expected to master and provide opportunities for peer tutoring. An effective coach will set tasks for the players that directly assist the development of the stated goals. The exercises are aligned to the skills needed to play a winning game.

Instructors orchestrate interactivity

The role of the instructor becomes to orchestrate opportunities for students to interact with each other using the resources available. Here are a number of steps to consider.

  1. Clarify the purpose of the activity. Which learning objective is this activity going to help students master? You may need to break the objective down in to sub-objectives for this. The Anderson and Krathwohl verbs will assist you here.
  2. Identify the immediate goal or product. Do you want them access or process information? Do you want them to develop new information or elaborate on what already exists? Perhaps you want to monitor their progress towards the learning objectives.
  3. Identify the resources needed. Where does the information needed for the activity come from? Are they getting it from each other or a written source you have provided? Will you need flipcharts?
  4. Provide clear written instructions and answer any questions they may have before you start.
  5. Plan in advance if and how you will collect results and what you will do with them.
  6. Monitor and support the students during the activity as needed.

Interactivity can happen online too

Everything you read here applies to online interactivity as well. Using learning platforms like Moodle makes it possible for students to engage with each other online as well. Forums, chats, social media and other collaborative tools (such as shared documents, wikis and online meeting software like Skype and Google Hangout) enable students to work together virtually synchronously (simultaneously) as well as asynchronously.

Final observations

Admittedly interactivity takes time, both in terms of planning and implementation. However, the learning that results is both deep and long-lasting.