By Rhian Ellis, Academic Developer, SALT.

Active Learning in Higher Education 


Why teach like this when learning is like this?

Education Rickshaw 2019 (1)

This blog is about active learning and its growing importance in Higher Education.

It’s also a great opportunity to offer my insight from the SALT ‘7Cs’ January workshop led by Dr. Patricia Xavier from Swansea University’s College of Engineering, ‘Dynamism, conversation and challenge: using active learning and assessment to engage passive learners’.

What is active learning?

‘‘Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves’’ (Chickering & Gamson 1987).

‘Uses active learning techniques’ is one among the ‘Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ originally published in 1987 by Chickering and Gamson.

Here are all seven in the original order presented…

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Uses active learning techniques
  4. Gives prompt feedback
  5. Emphasises time on task
  6. Communicates high expectations
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of doing things

Excellent learning and teaching often combines several or all of the principles in a certain approach.

Some good examples from Swansea University can be found on this link to the ‘Seven Characteristics of a Good University Teacher’ seminar and workshop programme, inspired by a combination of  Chickering and Gamson’s work and Swansea University qualitative module feedback, where you can find videos and blogs on past events and reservation links to upcoming ones.

Chickering and Gamson’s examples of active learning techniques include:-

  • Structured exercises
  • Challenging discussions
  • Team projects
  • Peer critiques
  • Outside the classroom e.g. internships
  • Independent study
  • Cooperative job programmes
  • Students co-designing and co-teaching

All of the above remain crucial areas of academic development in HE today, along with newer concepts such as ‘the flipped classroom’ and ‘blended learning’, which often incorporate learning technologies not imagined in 1989.

Active Spaces and Active Minds

In the HE context, the term ‘active learning’ is now synonymous with the spaces and environments within which active learning takes place, as traditional lecture theatres with large cohorts of students pose challenges in being able to adopt a more active approach. Solutions are sought in using space in innovative ways conducive to active learning, and technology has also enhanced active learning opportunities for larger groups, e.g. A019 at The Bay Campus at Swansea University.

However, it’s important to remember that the concept of active learning is an umbrella term for learning through all sorts of meaningful activities. It’s about the cognitive processes experienced by the learner, rather than the learning environments they are in, per se. By thinking creatively, we can create opportunities for active learning in many areas of ‘traditional’ teaching and learning (such as in the example below).

Active learning techniques are also favoured by employers, offering ‘more opportunity to embed skill enhancement’ such as problem solving, teamwork, communication and enthusiasm…’ (Power 2012).

January’s 7Cs Workshop:

‘Dynamism, conversation and challenge: using active learning and assessment to engage passive learners’

In this session held at A019 The Bay Campus, Dr Patricia Xavier from Swansea University’s College of Engineering shared and reflected upon her experience of introducing active learning and assessment techniques to groups of over 160 students. The session included the chance to participate in one of her active learning exercises.

Why Change?

Patricia began the session by asking us to think about terms such as ‘active’, ‘problem-based’ and ‘experience-based’ learning….what do these pedagogies have in common? They involve students being more ACTIVE rather than in their learning. Patricia quoted Dr Ben Brabon, Senior Advisor at Advance HE, who recently argued that people learn best

‘through doing, asking questions and self-constructing their knowledge. What we discover we are more likely to retain’ (Dr Ben Brabon, 2019)

Patricia explained that her motivation for introducing more active techniques to a construction management module was motivated by many factors – awareness of the pedagogical evidence, learning from peers at SALT conferences, but also first- hand experience of deteriorating attendance and absence of questions asked by and of students in large lectures. Speaking to students revealed an acceptance of the idea that a minimal amount of learning taking place in large lectures, of not retaining much knowledge from them, but simply seeing them as places to be signposted to learn in their own time.

What changed?

With careful planning, Patricia revised her approach to include:-

  • timetabled group learning sessions
  • examination of case studies and project data
  • exploration of interactive tasks
  • peer interaction and instruction
  • structured ‘paired’ weeks
  • formative assessed tasks with feedback, to precede summative ones

Tasks were designed to meet learning outcomes through students:-

  • spending more time together
  • discovering things for themselves
  • problem-solving, and
  • engaging in discussion

Patricia wanted to avoid micro-managing tasks but was available throughout the sessions to answer questions and facilitate the group work, at times having some assistance from a very small number of Demonstrators.

166 students were assigned to four-hour sessions of the above nature. There was an element of self-selection into groups of 3, then groups were groups paired, with some consideration of ability level. It’s important to stress at this stage that her formative assessment sessions were not compulsory, yet students attended.

Getting on with it!

We were asked to ‘get active’.  Putting ourselves in the role of students in groups of four, we attempted one of the activities she had actually used in one of her sessions. I thought this was an interesting and revealing workshop strategy, as we found ourselves experiencing similar emotions to that of Patricia’s students i.e. initial confusion giving way to satisfaction and a sense of achievement as the task progressed. We were asked to capture these emotions on post-it notes – very useful to draw on in risk management.

The ‘7C’s’ session was held in room A019, Engineering Central, which is one of Swansea University’s new bespoke active learning spaces, but Patricia explained that she had introduced her active methods in general teaching rooms big enough to accommodate her students, without any special equipment or software.

Was it worth the change?

Patricia invited feedback from her students, which initially included some opposition – they certainly felt they were being challenged and doing something different to the norm. However, Patricia found that the feedback and reassurance she offered back, combined with the benefits of the approach soon speaking for itself in terms of students’ learning, feedback quickly became very positive, quoting the fun, high level of engagement and staff-student interaction among the things they liked best. Feedback started to include the comment ‘thank-you’.

Were there lessons learned?

Yes. Patricia identified several, which should feature in the risk management of anyone thinking of adopting a similar approach.

  • Managing anxiety levels
  • Facilitation of large groups
  • Mitigation of language difficulties

These could all be addressed in the pre-session information given to prepare students e.g. glossaries, management of expectations, clear explanation of the advantages of active learning.

At the end of the session, I left thinking that Patricia’s new approach echoes many of the ‘Seven Principles of Good Undergraduate Practice’, and was both inspirational and practically helpful to colleagues thinking to make changes in their own teaching and learning.

If you have an example of active learning, especially in the context of a large group/cohort, we would love to hear about it at SALT. Please feel free to comment on the blog or message Rhian at SALT on, tweet @rhianellis #susaltcpd.

Additional Resources

(1) Image provided by Stephanie Groshell and Zach Groshell, Education

Extra Reading:

A.W.Chickering  and Z.F. Gamson “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (PDF). AAHE Bulletin. 3.

Research findings on the seven principles. In A.W. Chickering & Z.F. Gamson (Eds.) Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (pp. 13-25). New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 47. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Power, Jess (2012) Promoting Employability Skills through Active Learning. In: The Second Employability, Enterprise, & Citizenship in Higher Education Conference, Tuesday 27th March 2012, Manchester, UK.


  1. Pingback: Open Door Observation – Large Group Teaching – Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching

  2. Pingback: SALT – Getting active! Active Learning in Higher Education – Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.