The Active Learning Network: embracing interactive learning

By Wendy Garnham

How can we prepare students for careers which may not exist yet and a world which is changing so rapidly that no one can predict what it will look like? What tools and strategies can help to empower learners as independent researchers and creators of content in their own right?

In an age where the ‘abilities needed for academic and professional success in the future’ are changing faster than ever, the National Education Association in the U.S. have proposed that four skills – 1) Critical thinking, 2) Communication, 3) Collaboration and 4) Creativity – will be the most essential prerequisites for success in the 21st century (Germaine et al., 2016: 20). To develop these skills, a range of approaches is needed which position learners as active participants and co-authors of the learning process. Rather than being transmitted, knowledge is actively constructed in the individual mind and body of the learner. Active learning involves students thinking critically, communicating, collaborating and creating to produce observable evidence to demonstrate their learning. Students have the opportunity to engage with the learning emotionally and in so doing, they analyse, evaluate and think more deeply about the issues or content under consideration.

The Active Learning Network has its origins in the Flipped Learning Group established by Tab Betts from Technology Enhanced Learning. The group met every month to discuss issues around flipped learning as a pedagogical approach but myself and Tab soon realised that the discussion embraced the much wider educational theme of active learning, and in 2017 we renamed the group, the Active Learning Group and the idea of a network was initiated.

Since its inception in the summer of 2017, the Active Learning Network has become an international forum for discussion, collaboration and innovation in all things connected to active learning. The website, initiated in the summer of 2017, has already received over 4500 hits from individuals in 77 different countries. Members of the network include educational consultants, corporate representatives, academics, teachers, educational developers, curriculum managers and learning technologists. Our annual event, The Active Learning Conference, has already doubled in size from June 2017 to June 2018, has attracted collaborations from the Team-Based Learning Collaborative, and has secured sponsorship from Sony for its 3rd annual iteration at Sussex in June 2019.

So, what kind of approaches does active learning embrace? Some examples from our most recent conference include using the principles of Argentine tango to learn about leadership, the use of video technologies to enhance student engagement with feedback, a dwelling story development workshop, a presentation about barriers to team based learning and a session on the pedagogy of visual lectures. One of the exciting aspects of active learning is the way in which it encourages participation on the part of the student in activities and exercises that encourage them to engage in higher order thinking. It doesn’t have to involve introducing a radically different teaching approach, although it can (e.g. the Digital Classroom Project at University of Kent which involves changing the layout of a room). It can be something as simple as including a number of small breaks in a lecture and asking students to reflect on their notes with a partner for 2-3 minutes (Prince, 2013).

Why bother with active learning? There is an increasing wealth of evidence that active learning can improve student achievement AND satisfaction (e.g. Ballen et al, 2017; Freeman et al, 2014; Park & Choi, 2014; Soneral & Wyse, 2017). Freeman and colleagues claim that failure rates from traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning. Haak et al (2011) point to the potential for active learning to reduce the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in their achievement. Our own work with Foundation Year students has already demonstrated the power of active learning in both addressing differentiation and achievement through the use of multimedia activities in seminars.

Want to get involved? Check out the Active Learning Network website and subscribe to both the mailing list and our blog. Our monthly meetings and webinars are also a great platform to network and share ideas. Finally, we are always looking to showcase the work of colleagues and students in the area of active learning. Pedagogical explorations that are completed, in progress or still in the ideas phase are all welcome, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.


Ballen, C. J., Wieman, C., Salehi, S., Searle, J. B., & Zamudio, K. R. (2017). Enhancing diversity in undergraduate science: Self-efficacy drives performance gains with active learning. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(4), ar56.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Germaine, R., Richards, J., Koeller, M., & SchubGermaine, R., Richards, J., Koeller, M., & Schubert-Irastorza, C. (2016).ert-Irastorza, C. (2016). Purposeful Use of 21st Century Skills in Higher Education. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching, 9(1).

Haak, D. C., HilleRisLambers, J., Pitre, E., & Freeman, S. (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332(6034), 1213-1216.

Park, E. L., & Choi, B. K. (2014). Transformation of classroom spaces: Traditional versus active learning classroom in colleges. Higher Education, 68(5), 749-771.

Soneral, P. A., & Wyse, S. A. (2017). A SCALE-UP mock-up: Comparison of student learning gains in high-and low-tech active-learning environments. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(1), ar12.

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