Instructors and educators in every field strive to engage learners in active learning—a term that refers to educational activities where learners engage with the material, thinking and commenting on concepts and ideas and collaborating with other learners.

The early days of eLearning, when content was pushed to learners in text or lecture, relied heavily on passive learning. The often-unenthusiastic response from learners and less-than-stellar results underline the limits of a passive learning paradigm. Fortunately, eLearning is well beyond the days of text-heavy self-directed learning and lengthy taped lectures.

What is active learning?

Managers and eLearning designers can use a number of approaches to encourage active learning. These opportunities are present both within the framework of formal training, including eLearning and virtual classrooms, and in environments where employees seek learning through social and professional networks or collaboration with colleagues. However and wherever it occurs, though, active learning includes these features:

  • It’s organic—Learners take initiative in completing activities and even in designing them. Managers can encourage this activity by curating high-quality content, by facilitating the use of social networks like Yammer and Slack among employees across different departments and work groups, and by making it safe for employees to experiment, even if they sometimes “fail.”
  • It’s a priority—A key reason, often the number-one reason, that employees cite for lack of participation or engagement in learning activities is lack of time. Their “real” duties and responsibilities always take precedence. Managers can communicate the need to actively engage in learning both by setting an example—taking part in learning activities—and by making it not only possible but easy for employees to set aside time that is earmarked for learning. If learning activities are given the weight of a job duty or assignment, learners will be better able to justify spending time on them and more likely to engage rather than rush through.
  • It’s fun—Instructional designers at Booz Allen Hamilton created eLearning for international finance professionals that used themes like a spy mission and an international journey, hoping that fun eLearning would engage learners. It worked! Learners applauded the training—even the required ethics and compliance course on international trade regulations. “The learners loved it; they loved collecting the passport stamps,” said Liz Gusmati, a lead associate and member of the design team. (Read more in a case study that will be published in Learning Solutions Magazine on June 20.)

Why encourage active learning?

A pernicious myth dogs instructional designers: the idea that learning should be delivered in ways compatible with learners’ varied learning styles.

Learning styles do not exist; there is no evidence, despite considerable research, that people learn better—that learning outcomes improve—if information is presented in their preferred “style.” Nor is the idea of “left- or right-brained” individuals grounded in science or research.

Learners do, of course, have clear preferences for how and when they consume content. That means that offering content in multiple formats and providing choices is one key to increasing engagement or active learning. And research does show that active learning is more “sticky” than passive learning.

The reliance on learning styles is not the only myth that damages the quality of learning. For instance, Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, found that a majority of the people he surveyed believe that reading and rereading material, possibly highlighting key sections, is a good way to learn. And that informal quizzes are not helpful.

But the opposite is true.

“Researchers from across the field argue that more engaged forms of education—such as quizzing, explaining, or teaching others—produce much better student outcomes and a deeper grasp of material,” Boser writes in “What Do People Know About Excellent Teaching and Learning?

How to spark active learning

Informal quizzes, whether administered by an instructor or self-testing, are a proven method of active learning—but quizzes are far from the only way to promote active learning. Any exercise where learners apply information counts as active learning; these include scenarios where learners choose an action, role-playing games, solving challenge questions, or pair or small-group discussion and analysis of problems or situations. Encouraging reflection, which can be individual—five-minute writing prompts, for example—or collaborative, is another great way to facilitate active learning.

In a virtual classroom, using tools like group chat or breakout rooms helps break up the potential monotony of requiring learners to sit through endless slides—while also engaging them in, you guessed it, active learning. Even asking learners to type responses to open-ended questions into the class chat window can encourage discussion and get their brains working harder.

The more learners examine information that they are learning in a context that applies it to real-world job skills or problems, the deeper the learning will be and the longer they will retain it.