GP 6 Encourage active, self directed learning

In essence

Learning, whether it be formal or informal is most effective when it is social and collaborative. When students share and respond to their own and others’ ideas it sharpens thinking and deepens understanding. Students need to construct their own knowledge by relating it to their past experiences and applying it to their everyday life so that it becomes meaningful knowledge.

Students need opportunities to actively engage in learning. They also need to be encouraged to become self-directed so that ultimately they can negotiate unknown contexts and manage, regulate and evaluate their own learning as professionals and graduates.

Active learning is more than activity alone and should be designed to enable students to think and reflect on their learning activities.

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What you can do

You can promote active learning by designing tasks that require students to engage in meaningful learning activities and to think about what they are doing (Prince, 2004). You can provide opportunities for discussion and social interaction so that students can draw on existing knowledge and build on what they know (Lloyd, 2004, Smart & Csapo, 2007).

Lower risk activities to support Active Learning:

  • Pause Procedure
  • Short Writes
  • Summarize last lecture, readings, etc.
  • What didn’t you understand?
  • Analytical lists
  • Journal entries
  • Thumbs up/thumbs down response to statement
  • Surveys or questionnaires
  • Formative (ungraded) quizzes
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Brainstorming
  • Pairs/groups develop an outline of the lecture
  • Structured group discussions (specific questions provided)

Higher risk activities to support Active Learning

  • Group Discussion (no structure)
  • Guided lecture
  • Individual/group presentations
  • Pairs/groups develop applications related to lecture content
  • Pairs/groups write test questions related to lecture material
  • Students analyze a problem, poem, photography, etc.
  • Students work a problem then evaluate each others’ work
  • Role plays illustrating a concept from lecture
  • Responsive lecture

What it looks like

You know students are active and engaging in self directed learning when they:

  1. are involved in more than passive listening
  2. are involved in higher order thinking such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation
  3. are engaged in activities such as reading, discussing, writing
  4. place more emphasis on developing skills and less emphasis on information transmission
  5. are exploring attitudes and values
  6. are motivated
  7. can receive immediate feedback from their instructor

Myths busted

The authors dispel a series of myths around using active learning and provide a set of guidelines for successful integration into courses in typically ‘hands-on’ disciplines where it is believed that activity alone cannot promote deep learning. Active learning can encourage students to think about and reflect on what they have done and then to explore concepts and theories in the field. Read more (Scheyvens, Griffin, Jocoy, Liu, & Bradford, 2008).

How it is applied in disciplines

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: The Four Questions Technique is developed and implemented in a psychology course where students engaged with complex issues around self-enhancement bias or the dilemmas of a prisoner. The quiz encourages students to analyze, reflect, relate and generate questions about what they have learnt. Read more Dietz-Uhler & Lanter (2009).

Media and Communication: A framework for active learning describes a number of learning activities involving student teaching teams that were used in a communicationsclass. Students participate in a wide range of collaborative activities such as discussion, demonstration, games, role-plays and team assessments. Specific active learning strategies such as homework review, value line, 3-2-1 processor and muddiest point are described. Read more Gueldenzoph (2007).

How it is applied in teaching contexts

Large lecture classes: Student feedback shows that small group work is useful for challenging and deepening their understandings through engagement with other students. Active learning strategies should be planned with clear directions and streamlined into course content and not added as extra activity to ensure that students have sufficient time to engage and debrief their experiences. Read more Yazedjian & Kolkhorst (2007).

E-learning requires students to actively participate and to engage with high levels of discipline, control and motivation. Various activities and tools like simulations, group research projects, discussion forums, chat and group functions and wikis can encourage students to engage and reflect on their learning. As students will develop independent learning behavior over time, a full range of e-learning tools is best introduced incrementally to ensure students are better prepared to engage more fully and actively. Read more Cullen & Harris (2009).

What you should think about when implementing Active and Self-directed learning in your teaching

Answer Yes to these

Teaching philosophy: I believe in student-centred learning. I think about the contribution I am making to the development of students skills and capabilities for their future professional lives.

Pedagogies: Active and self-directed learning approaches which characteristically emphasize constructivist learning suit my teaching.

Curriculum: There are specific learning outcomes I wish my students to have in my course.

Tools for learning: I can motivate my students to adopt active and self-directed learning strategies. I can incorporate active and self-directed learning into my course.

Commitment: I can identify an ‘active or self-directed learning’ champion who will support innovative practice.

Why is it important?

The aims of higher education are many but importantly include that students undergo conceptual change in their thinking and understanding of self as well as acquire disciplinary information and content (Biggs, 2003).

Learning is not a spectator activity. Learning is more effective when students are actively involved and they have opportunities to talk about, write about and apply what they have learnt to their daily lives (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Students should therefore ideally be supported in their learning to actively engage in higher level cognitive processes such as relating, applying and theorizing so that they can construct new knowledge and make what they learn a part of themselves (Biggs. 2003; Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Learning in higher education is also about encouraging students to be self-directed so that they can determine their own learning needs, set learning goals, take action to meet necessary requirements and evaluate their work for both their immediate responsibilities as students and future circumstances as professionals (Biggs, 2003).

What is it and how does it support learning? What does recent research say?

Active learning

Active learning can involve active participation in a planned activity, an analysis of and reflection on what has been experienced and learnt, and the application of principles that have been learned in real life situations (Smart & Csapo, 2007).

Also referred to in the literature as interactive instruction, experiential learning, or “learning by doing” (Smart & Csapo, 2007), common forms of active learning include collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning (Prince, 2004).

There is broad support in the literature for the effectiveness of active learning approaches (Prince, 2004). Active learning can enhance student interest and motivation, increase student responsibility for learning as well as foster the development of important professional and interpersonal capabilities (Nicol & Macfarlane, 2006, Prince, 2004).

Self-directed learning

By modeling study skills and ‘how to learn’ strategies such as time and space management along with providing guidance in specific academic skills such as reading, note-taking and writing, academics and teachers can support students to develop independence as learners (Biggs, 2003). Formative assessment approaches that incorporate feedback from a range of sources, including peers, self and teachers can help students to regulate their thinking, motivation and behavior during learning (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).

As well as citing instructions for designing embedded self-regulatory support for students in courses (Ley & Young, 2001), recent research shows that problem-based learning (Hung, 2009) and e-learning environments (Vovides, Sanchez-Alonso, Mitropoulou & Nickmans, 2007) can, when appropriately implemented, effectively support the development of self-directed learning abilities.


Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press.

Bonwell, C. (200?). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. The American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, March.

Cullen, R., & Harris, M. (2009). Online Learning: More Than Technical Savvy. Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning Retrieved 9th November, 2009

Hung, W. (2009). The 9-step problem design process for problem-based learning: Application of the 3C3R model. Educational Research Review, 4, 118-141.

Ley, K., & Young, D. B. (2001). Instructional principles for self-regulation. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 49(2), 93-103.

Lloyd, L. (2004). Being a 'reflective practitioner': how my beliefs about learning have influenced my teaching (and vice versa). Paper presented at the Honouring our tertiary teaching: a collection of papers from the FEHPS 2003 Symposium for recognising wonderful university teaching and learning.

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.

Scheyvens, R., Griffin, A. L., Jocoy, C. L., Liu, Y., & Bradford, M. (2008). Experimenting with Active Learning in Geography: Dispelling the Myths That Perpetuate Resistance. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 32(1), 51-69.

Smart, K. L., & Csapo, N. (2007). Learning by Doing: Engaging Students through Learner-Centered Activities. Business Communication Quarterly, 70(4), 451-457.

Vovides, Y., Sanchez-Alonso, S., Mitropoulou, V., & Nickmans, G. (2007). The use of e-learning course managemenet systems to support learning strategies and to improve self-regulated learning. Educational Research Review, 2, 64-74.