What is Participatory Learning or Active Learning?

The verbs in the names of these two typically interchangeable terms say a lot about them: this kind of learning is meant to engage students, to put them in the driver’s seat of their own education, to make learning active and participation-based, and to make education more equitable. Some of the core elements of participatory learning include community, collaboration, and social justice (Alfie Kohn). Participatory learning descends from genealogies in progressive education that go back to Montessori and Dewey, radical pedagogy (think Paulo Freire‘s dialogic methods and bell hooks‘ emphasis on the intellectual and spiritual growth of students), and a variety of contemporary, engaged pedagogies, including those inflected by social science (such as the work of Carol Dweck on fixed versus growth mindset).

Participatory learning is founded on the idea that everyone deserves to learn and everyone deserves an education that supports their potential. Every student has a right to succeed. Participatory learning is structured for student success and empowerment, which means including our students in the learning process (e.g., co-creating a syllabus and learning outcomes). Finally, participatory learning reinforces a self-reflective method by engaging students in metacognition, a process that tasks learners with critically reexamining traditional modes of teaching and learning.

Unlike lecturing, which uses a top-down model of information distribution and treats students as passive recipients of knowledge, the research shows that active learning enhances the absorption of complex ideas through application. Carl E. Wieman, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2001, recommends getting rid of all lectures. As summarized by Wolfgang Huang in his Lindau article on Wieman: “Simply put, the idea behind active learning is that the brain needs to exercise continuously to form new neural connections, which strengthen decision-making and in doing so rewire the brain. Passively listening to lectures does not help the brain to exercise, actively thinking about right or wrong explanations and paths to follow does” (Wolfgang Huang).

When given the chance to participate, we all learn better. The research on the value of participatory learning is irrefutable. In May 2014, several scholars from a variety of STEM disciplines published a “meta analysis” of 225 separate studies of different ways of teaching and learning. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they argued that active learning (participatory learning by another name) improved student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, from test scores to retention and applicability (the ability to apply classroom learning to new situations). They write, “students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” A follow-up meta study conducted in 2020, showed the same kind of results were even more evident if difference, equity, equality, diversity, and inclusion were factored into the study.

For some ideas on the practical application of participatory learning methods–active learning activities you can use today in your classroom–read Cathy N. Davidson’s Active Learning Toolkit or Christina Katopodis’s “Active Learning Activities You Can Use in Your Classroom Now” and more on the Progressive Pedagogy HASTAC Group.

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