76% of Gen Z learners believe learning is the key to a successful career. In fact, Gen Z is so focused on workplace learning that, according to the 2021 LinkedIn Learning report, Gen Z learners watched 50% more hours per learner of learning content in 2020 vs. 2019. 

This focus on education—whether we call it upskilling, continuous learning, professional development, or something else—makes sense. Increasing your acumen can help you land that promotion, deepen your skillset, or simply create a more enjoyable or meaningful work environment. 

However, “learning” isn’t a simple in-out equation. When it comes to L&D (Learning and Development), there is a whole range of learning theories that attempt to explain how learning works, and what methods are most effective. For instance, from the learner’s perspective, there’s a world of difference between completing an L&D-driven course founded on the principles of Adult Learning Theory versus one that’s based on old-school, ‘pedagogical’ thinking.

One of the approaches to learning that we firmly advocate Learning and Development professionals—or anyone creating courses—adhere to is that of ‘active learning.’ Below, we’ll see why active learning is the best approach to workplace instruction, and how it fits into a bigger methodology, Collaborative Learning—and why both lead to happier, more productive teams. Individuals seeking to learn new skills should also pay attention to the benefits of active learning when considering the variety of free educational apps that are available to them.

What is active learning?

Think back to when you were in school. Did you ever have a teacher that made you copy notes off the board, row after row? Or memorize the multiplication table in silence? What about memorizing a passage from a famous novel or poem? Maybe in college, you had a professor that would drone on for 45 minutes, without ever asking the lecture hall a question or organizing any group discussions.

These are all examples of passive learning—learning in which the learner plays a minimal role. They’re often experienced as boring, and worse: ineffective. The opposite approach to this soporific method is active learning. As you might have guessed, active learning is when the learner is actively involved in constructing their own understanding of the subject, often through group interactions and applied thinking.

Maybe you had another teacher who asked the class to read the chalkboard notes aloud or to explain them in their own words. Perhaps she asked you to find a partner and quiz each other on the multiplication table. Or write an interpretation of a poem as it relates to your own life experiences. And that college professor? It would be great if they had interrogated the class once in a while, or organized for break-out groups to go over assigned questions related to the lecture.

Active learning makes the learner the protagonist of their learning journey and relies on the fact that people better retain information when they’ve had a chance to work through it—actively—themselves. A few well-known studies and theories back up this notion.

Why does active learning work?

For higher education students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, the pressure to learn is on. Researchers at the University of Washington took advantage of this intense learning environment to conduct a meta-study (that is, a study of a series of studies), to look into whether active learning was more effective than traditional, lecture-based (passive) learning. Did students exposed to one method or the other get better results?

For any student who’s had to sit through interminable lectures, listen up: the analysis found that, “average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” Yikes! Even though lecture-based teaching is extremely prevalent, it looks like it drags downgrade averages and might even tip the balance between a pass and a fail.

And active learning? In this study, that simply meant, “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs.” Pretty simple stuff, and yet it makes a world of difference.

But these researchers aren’t the only ones to have found positive benefits to a more active form of learning. Renowned educational researcher Sugata Mitra conducted a few surprising experiments of his own. 

A portion of his research, which he refers to as “Minimally Invasive Education,” but which is commonly known as the “Hole in the Wall” experiment, demonstrates the power of self-directed, active learning. The experiment consisted of the following: Mitra and his team would set up a computer with internet access in an impoverished area of India (the first being in New Delhi). The researchers were astonished to find that the local children were able, which absolutely no instruction except what they could discover themselves through trial and error, to successfully use the computer to surf the net.

The experiment was successfully repeated numerous times, which lead Mitra to the following conclusion:

“When working in groups, children do not need to be “taught” how to use computers. They can teach themselves. Their ability to do so seems to be independent of educational background, literacy level, social or economic status, ethnicity and place of origin, gender, geographic location (i.e., city, town or village, or intelligence.”

When left to their own devices, the children worked actively with one another, accidentally making and sharing new discoveries and gaining new knowledge. When ‘invasion’ was minimal, and their self-directed activity allowed to flourish, these kids surprised everyone at how much they were able to learn.

This idea of ‘self-directed’ and active learning isn’t just effective with children, however. Malcolm Knowles, the father of ‘Andragogy’ or Adult Learning Theory, also believed in the efficacy of allowing the learner a more active role in their acquisition of knowledge—and he maintained this was in fact central to optimal learning in adults, specifically. His 20th century Adult Learning Theory, which was tweaked and perfected over time, came to be summed up in six principles:

  1. Adults’ need to know (why what they’re learning is important)
  2. Learner’s self-concept (they need to be treated like adults with agency)
  3. The role of the learner’s experiences (adult learners bring their varied life experiences to bear during training)
  4. Readiness to learn (adult learners need to see how learning fits into where they are in their lives)
  5. Orientation to learning (for adults, learning is mostly oriented to problem-solving)
  6. Motivations (adults are often motivated by internal, not external, factors)

Much of Knowles’ theory relies on the idea that adults learn best when they feel like active agents of their own learning experience, instead of passive students back in grade school.

Examples of active learning

By now, you’re probably at least somewhat convinced that active learning is at least worth trying out. But how exactly would one go about doing that? There are many different ways to implement active learning principles in the workplace: 

  • Group or peer problem-solving: It can be as simple as asking two or more colleagues to hash out a tough question together, instead of asking everyone to ponder the issue alone.
  • Worksheets or tutorials: Any kind of interactive exercise that gets the learner involved.
  • Break out discussions / group discussions: Get an entire team thinking together about a course they’ve collectively taken. 
  • Case studies: Make abstract material interactive and concrete by presenting it in a case study format the learner has to work through.
  • Role-play: this can be particularly useful in sales training, management training, or conflict resolution training. 
  • Interactive media: Instead of flat pdfs or other one-way media, use formats that are interactive, with visual assets where learners can click, explore, or go through branch scenarios.

Another way to get learners involved and active is to actually transform them into course creators themselves—and this is one of the principal ideas behind Collaborative Learning, which relies much on active learning, but takes that idea one step further.

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to have a collaborative digital notepad to document different ways of active learning and any thoughts you want to remember.

Beyond active learning: Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning is a training methodology where employees share their knowledge and expertise, teaching and learning from one another at the same time. Group learning enhances the training experience by capitalizing on each employee’s skills, ideas, and institutional knowledge—remember the Hole in the Wall experiment explained above? It’s also an approach that’s bottom-up, in that learners themselves are able to determine their own Learning Needs (think Adult Learning Theory) and share their own subject-matter expertise. 

In a little more detail, Collaborative Learning is:

  • Democratized: Learners determine their own Learning Needs, instead of top management, which can feel much more meaningful to the learner.
  • Relevant: Courses are continuously updated and are created by subject-matter experts with rich institutional knowledge, so material is 100% specific to the learner’s environment.
  • Fast: Course can be created in minutes, not months.
  • Iterative: Collaborative Learning is based on peer feedback loops, so improvement is constant and contextual.
  • Impact-driven: Because it’s based on relevant material and an active learning approach, learners are more engaged and have higher course completion rates.

To that last point, at 360Learning, we wanted to take a look at our clients’ data and see just how effective their Collaborative Learning approach was.

We found that:

  • Learners find courses that had internal collaboration during the creation process 2x as useful.
  • Learners find courses that are updated regularly 27% more useful
  • Questions provoke the highest amount of positive Reactions at a staggering 75.9% conversion.

Just like the University of Washington researchers, Sugata Mitra, Malcolm Knowles, and countless others have found, our own data supports the idea that when learners are actively and collaboratively engaged with the material they are learning (and teaching!), the learning experience is more enjoyable and impactful.

Parting advice

Employees value continuous learning in the workplace, and the more effective and enjoyable that experience is for them, the more value they’ll feel they’re getting out of it. If you’re looking to make learning a big part of your company, you should definitely consider weaving active and Collaborative Learning into your L&D programs.