Principles of Active Learning
Up to Doug
Brent's Papers on Rhetoric and Composition
University of Calgary
Knowledge Received/Knowledge Constructed:
Principles of Active Learning in the Disciplines
A Keynote Address Presented at the
Teaching and Learning and Writing Across the Curriculum
Faculty Development Workshop
May 1, 1996
Sometimes I read the exams or term papers at the end of a course and say to myself, "I
taught them everything I know and they still know nothing" It's nice to know I'm not
alone, though. According to one study, introductory psychology students who were
tested four months after the course scored only 8 percent better than students who had
never taken the course at all (Rickard 151-52).
Obviously, students just don't absorb material very well from traditional presentational
teaching. During the first ten minutes of a lecture, students retain about 70% of the
information presented. During the last ten minutes, they retain less than 20%
It's tempting to blame the audience. Postman is probably right: television has
conditioned us all to reach for a channel changer as soon as anything falls below the
required number of jolts per minute. But there's more to it than that. Current-traditional
presentation style simply does not take into account the realities of how people learn.
I don't have to argue against the "banking" theory of education, in which we fill students
with data and they hand it back on exams. This is a dead horse that doesn't need any
more flogging. It is clear that knowledge, not data, is the important outcome of
education, and that knowledge is actively constructed by establishing links between
existing knowledge and new information. When students retain data just long enough to
retrieve it for an exam and then flush their mental toilets to make room for more, they do
so because we have never helped them make it into knowledge in the first place. It has
remained well, you get the idea.
But it is only lately that we have begun to realize how thoroughly situated
this knowledge-making process is. "Situated cognition" is a name given to a group of
theories that relate the knowledge-making process, not just to specific physical contexts,
but more important, to social and linguistic contexts. We make knowledge as part of a
community of practice in which people do things together and talk about what they do.
As Jean Lave puts it, "Learning, thinking and knowing are relations among people
engaged in activity in, with, and arising from the socially and
culturally structured world." (Lave 67)
Lave contrasts two communities of practice. One is a supermarket meat department.
Apprentice meatcutters are put to work where they can be the most efficient, at the
wrapping machine. But the wrapping machine is in a different room from the cold room
in which journeymen prepare meat. As a result, the apprentices have no opportunity to
become what Lave calls "legitimate peripheral participants" in the community of practice.
They have to learn to cut meat by depending on their formal training rather than by
hanging around the meatcutters and gradually doing more of what they do.
In contrast, apprentice midwives in Yucatan are usually daughters of senior midwives.
They see the business of midwifery come and go through the house, and as they get
older they accompany their mothers as they attend births, help out with some of the
simpler procedures, and eventually begin to take over as they move from the margin to
the centre of the community. In this scenario, "Broad exposure to ongoing
practice . . . is a demonstration of the goals toward which newcomers are expected to
move. Knowledge and skill develop in the process and as an integral part of the
process of becoming like master practitioners within a community of practice." (Lave
The typical presentation-style classroom reminds me more of the supermarket than of
the community of midwives. While we make knowledge in the back room, our students
sit where they can be most efficient, safely ensconced at the knowledge-wrapping
I'd rather teach midwives than meat wrappers. The question is, how do we structure our
classrooms to make this happen, especially as classes get bigger, we get busier, and
students get more in a hurry to finish their education before they are $50,000 in
Let's look at the community of practice our students are striving to enter. They are not
just learning to cut meat or to help mothers deliver babies. They are learning to become
legitimate participants in a culture that values certain forms of thought as
well as patterns of practice.
The community of practice that makes up the academic culture is above all a textualized,
symbolic world. Rhetorical analysis of discourse communities has shown that the forms
of thought of an academic community are encoded into, or better, constituted
by, its reading and writing conventions. The conventions of, say, a Physics lab
report or a Nursing literature review are not just superficial ways of structuring the same
sort of knowledge. Beyond and indeed within the conventions about where the footnotes
go and how the introduction and conclusion are worded lie deep assumptions about
what counts as a worthwhile problem to investigate, what might be said about that
problem, what counts as good evidence for a claim, and perhaps most important, how
that particular text is situated with reference to the other texts in the discipline.
Charles Bazerman, for example, shows how the conventional structure and language of
the scientific report reproduces assumptions about how what science is and how it is to
be done. Standards of proof such as closeness of fit, discreteness, robustness, and
reproducibility are encoded into the discourse practices. By creating expectations for
these standards in the reader, texts do not merely reflect the discipline. In an important
sense they create it.
This situatedness means that learning to write and writing to learn are intimately
connected. To learn to write in a discipline means learning to constitute the mindset of
that discipline. In practical terms, this means that reading and writing is not a
formal skill that can be relegated to the English department or writing centre.
It is a substantive skill which the English department or writing centre must
help students construct along with the disciplinary specialists who maintain the academic
domains in which it is used. These individual sites of local knowledge that constitute
disciplines can be thought of as particular passages in a conversation that constitutes
the larger academic culture.
The "conversation" metaphor is from Kenneth Burke's Philosophy of Literary
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have
long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion
too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the
discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one
present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You
listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument;
then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to
your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or
gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's
assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you
must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in
In the academic world, much of this conversation takes place as an exchange of
texts scholarly papers written, read, responded to, embedded in and referred to by
other scholarly papers. But that textual conversation is heavily embedded in another
informal conversation that takes place in the hallways, in the coffee lounge, and at
conferences, usually in the bar where people can stop listening to tedious monologues
like this one and start really talking about what they're doing.
The Philosophy of Literary Form 110-111.
This conversation is not only the way knowledge is made about specific pieces of
academic "content." William Perry, Mary Belenky and others suggest that immersion in
an intellectual and social community is a vital support for young people in the process of
maturing into fully functioning, critically thinking, knowledge-constructing adults. By
engaging in the social exploration of knowledge and self, students become capable of
metacognition: the ability not just to think, but to think about what you are
This presents us with a challenge.
Students are hardly "legitimate peripheral participants" when they read a predigested
textbook, mine the library for research material once or twice, and turn in one or two
pieces of written work which are returned with a grade and a few cryptic comments.
Here the emphasis is too much on the peripheral and not enough on the practitioner.
Current-traditional practices of reading and writing just don't encourage students to use
texts as part of an epistemic conversation.
Right now I have time only for a few brief suggestions as to how active learning can
structure reading and writing activities in the context of academic discourse
First, we must integrate texts and talk more dynamically. Even if the classroom is
structured around discussion, this will not be an epistemic environment if the teacher
asks questions to which she already knows the answer and then waits an estimated
average of .9 seconds before filling in the silence with an answer or another prompt
("Slow Down"). Neither will the traditional "group project," which is really a traditional
term paper written by three people instead of one. Students usually hate these projects
because they take three times as long to do as doing it on your own for relatively little
visible reward. And they're right.
The kind of conversation I'm talking about is not tacked onto a course as an extra. It's
drawn through the entire structure of the course. I'll talk more in my workshop about
some specific ways of doing this. For now, I'll just list what I think are the most important
features of texts in a truly social learning environment.
This doesn't mean that we can send students away in September and tell them to drop
by in April for their marks. Being a "legitimate peripheral participantr" means getting into
a lot of jams. This is exactly the point. Learning occurs at the point where students are
in a little over their heads, where conceptual gaps open and create problems that can
only be solved by applying new knowledge and new forms of thinking which must be
constructed for the occasion. The gap creates the occasion for the conversations that fill
it. Our role is to be part of those conversations, providing modelling and guidance,
letting students pick our brains when they find that there are things which they need to
pick them for. Any administrator who thinks that these techniques will save time had
better think again but at least we may be able to get better results for the time we
- texts are written and read in an environment in which the entire class takes collective
responsibility for finding, sharing, and making knowledge out of mere
- Texts aren't always literally co-written. Lunsford and Ede give many examples of
writing processes that are social without composing final texts together. But texts
always grow out of communal processes.
- Texts are not always major events. They are part of the daily business of the
classroom as students take five minutes here, ten minutes there, to read, to write, to talk
and to think.
- Texts are never written for the teacher alone. Both small texts and large are
exchanged, read, discussed and responded to by students.
- Texts are not always graded. Sometimes the teacher doesn't even read them.
Students use them as tools in the larger knowledge-making business of the
- Texts are never prepared in isolation. Smaller summaries, responses, and
brainstormings accumulate and become part of larger research projects which in turn
may be "published" through the miracle of photocopying or electronic bulletin boards.
This means that the smaller projects are driven by larger goals.
- Texts brought in from outside the class are sometimes read in common, sometimes
read only by individuals or groups. The sum of textual knowledge in the class is always
larger than could be attained by any one member. Otherwise there's no point.
The best place for this sort of conversation is in a class of twenty or twenty-five, in a nice
room with comfortable furniture. In the absence of this glorious dream of our youth, we
have to teach in classrooms that look more like a factory floor than a coffee house. But
can apply some of these ideas even in this hostile environment. (I imagine you'll get
more on this from Jennifer Keck's talk later today.) Students can break up spells of
listening with brief reading, writing and talking activities. (Bean, Drenk and Lee have
some ideas on how students can do useful writing activities that will fit on a 3 x 5 card.
This is on the bibliography under "Microtheme Strategies.")
Your handout shows how a large lecture section might be structured as a more active
social learning environment. You'll notice that Jenkins' style here is considerably more
directive than mine. He keeps talking about how the lecturer takes it on herself to
"answer the question," for instance. But the point is the same: nothing holds still as texts
and talk, listening and speaking, continually alternate. The catatonic state that settles
on an audience after the first few minutes of a lecture never has a chance to develop.
You can make large groups less directive by breaking up large lecture-based classes.
Rather than having formal "tutorials" once a week as adjuncts to the lecture, the lecture
can become an adjunct to the tutorials. The scheduled class time, possibly the only time
that all students in a group will have in common, can become a time for working together
in smaller groups, in the classroom, in the library, in the coffee shop. Instead of fonts of
information, the lectures can become sites at which students gather to hear advice on
what to do in their groups and to make brief presentations of their results.
You may worry that you won't be able to "cover the material." You're right but you
probably won't anyway if the statistics I mentioned earlier are even half accurate. Even if
you cover it, they'll forget it. When students get out of the university into actual
communities of practice they will "cover the material" by re-learning that which proves to
be really important "on the outside." While they're here, we need to give them the tools
for doing that.
Finally, let's take a look at how technology figures in this picture.
On its face, information technology looks like an ideal medium for active learning.
George Landow argues that hypertext will make students more active learners because
it is impossible not to be active while following and creating links to widely dispersed
data. Computer conferencing, electronic mail, interactive tutorials, all seem tailor-made
for making education more learner-centred.
But like everything else, this technology can be subverted if it is only used to support
current-traditional teaching practices. Working through a list of readings isn't any more
active if the readings are posted on a web site instead of in the reserve reading room.
Summaries and commentaries aren't any more active if they are e-mailed directly to the
teacher who ends up being the only one reading them.
To take full advantage of information technology, we need to exploit not just its potential
for presenting information but its potential for connecting people to people. Positioned
somewhere between writing and speech, electronic writing can allow students to create
provisional texts which are fluid and malleable. They can trade them, comment on them,
embed parts of one text in another, and most important, talk about them without having
to accomplish the almost impossible task of getting conflicting schedules to jibe. And
they can publish them where everyone, not just the teacher, can read them and use them
as part of the slow progress of the community towards knowledge.
In short, active learning involves an act of faith. When responsibility for learning is
turned over to the students, they will miss things. They will get some things wrong. But I
take heart from the words of one of my students:
The first time I read that passage from Burke, I didn't understand it very well. When I
had to work together with my group to explain how it related to rhetoric, I had to read
it again, and I understood it a little better. And then when we had to defend our
interpretation against Group 3's interpretation, I went back and read it a third time,
and then I really thought I understood it.
Maybe she didn't really understand it, at least not the way I understand it. But she did
read Kenneth Burke three times, with attention. For me that marks her as a midwife, not
as a meat wrapper.
Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the
Experimental Article in Science. University of Wosconsin Press, 1988.
Bean, John, Dean Drenk, and F. D. Lee. "Microtheme Strategies for Developing
Cognitive Skills." C. Williams Griffen, Teaching Writing in All Disciplines.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982: 27-38.
Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and
Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of
Self, Voice, and Mind. Basic: 1986.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1941.
Landow, George. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary
Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,
Lave, Jean. "Situating Learning in Communities of Practice." In Lauren
Resnick, John M. Levine and Stephanie D. Teasley. Perspectives on
Socially Shared Cognition. Washington: American Psychological
McKeachie, W. J. Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning
College Teacher. Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1986. Cited Meyers and
Perry, William. "Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning." In
Arthur W. Chickering, The Modern American College. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 1981: 76-114.
Rickard, H., Rogers, R, Ellis, N., and Beidleman, W. "Some Retention, But
Not Enough." Teaching of Psychology 1988. 15, 151-152. Cited
Meyers and Jones 15.
"Slow Down, You Move Too Fast." Phi Delta Kappan 69(1987)
234. Cited Meyers and Jones, 30