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Active learning in practice

Active learning in practice (6:42)
Hi. I’m Dr. Stacey Donofrio, university teacher at the Psychology Department of the University of Groningen. My teaching primarily involves a small group settings. For example, I coordinate the communication and diagnostic skills courses in which students learn and practise interview skills. I see interactive learning as a way for students not only to learn new theory, but to aqcuire to new skills that will translate to life after university. In my classes, I guide my students through Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. They learn theory, actually experiment by putting theory to use in small group teaching, examine their feelings during that experimentation, and then reflect on how their experience links back to the theory they learned.
When they passed through all four steps, they gain a deeper understanding of the subject. In this video, I will discuss the four steps of Kolb’s learning theory. But first, let’s explore the differences between surface and deep learning. In courses with traditional lecture settings, students often only learn about theory. They listen to a lecture and study a textbook, and at the end of the course they take an exam to show that they have acquired knowledge on the topic. This kind of learning tends to be surface learning. They memorise facts, or learn rotely. Students are able to identify facts or describe a theory in general terms.
With surface learning, students may learn enough to just pass an exam but may not retain the information afterward. Courses with a practical component are good example of interactive learning. These types of courses offer students more than just surface learning. They do not just sit in a lecture hall and listen to the professor. Practical sessions ask students to become active, to role play a situation, to work on a statistical problem, to create something in a lab, et cetera. For example, in my course, Communication and Diagnostic Skills, students do role playing exercises in which they take turns playing the psychologist holding an interview. By learning to work with theories and apply them, the student learns about a subject more deeply.
Applying theory is more fun, too. Doing this in a classroom setting allows them to receive formative feedback about their learning process. This kind of deep learning encourages students to take the foundation they learned in previous courses and lectures and to build on that knowledge. They learn to link theories together. Kolb developed a theory on experiential learning whereby learning can be seen as a circular or cyclical process. According to Kolb, after learning a theory you should test that knowledge in a new situation. That hands-on, concrete experience forms the basis for reflection on what occurred in that experience. The next step is to link your thoughts or reflections on the experience back to the theory.
This combination of reflection and theory can be used to experiment with the knowledge in yet another new situation.
As an example, we can take the teaching process. You might learn about theory on how to lead a small group through a discussion of a specific topic. You prepare questions for discussion and then get your group to discuss that topic. During the discussion, you should try to be aware of what is going on. Are your questions eliciting the response from the students that you wanted? After the discussion, you should think back about how it went– what went well, what would you have liked to go differently? Relate your experience with the theory about how to lead a small group through a discussion. With this new insight, you are now armed to better lead them through a discussion in the next session.
This circular process Kolb described can go on continuously until you are comfortable with the skills you have been practicing and the knowledge has been transformed from the abstract to the tangible. In the case of our example, your skills in leading discussions are good when you can activate the group to discuss their thoughts on the theory they read before class and when they have reached the intended learning outcome of being able to apply the theory, to solve a certain problem, for instance. This kind of interactive learning is what takes place in the small group settings often led by student assistants at the University of Groningen. In more and more courses, professors use techniques like the flipped classroom.
In a flipped classroom, the students typically go through the theory by themselves. They can do that by watching short videos or reading texts. Afterwards, they have to make an assignment, individually or in groups, which they discuss with the teacher or student assistant in class. A course is thus flipped by covering theory before class and discussing and answering questions during class. We also use learning communities whereby small groups are formed at the start of the year. Students stay together for multiple modules over the course of the academic year.
The student learning communities promote intentionally-organized interactions between students, between students and the teacher, or learning community coach– who is typically a student assistant– and between students and the curriculum in order to enhance the learning process of the whole group and the individual student. Learning communities further help creating a safe and inclusive learning environment, but we will talk more about this next week.
As a student assistant, your role is to guide the students through their own experiential learning process, to lead theory-based discussions, to facilitate activities for students to practise with theory, to guide assignments whereby students examine their feelings during the activity, and to prompt students during in-class discussions to reflect on how their experience and feelings link back to the theory. Your formative feedback, which we will discuss in more depth in Week 4, helps students go through the different stages of the cycle. In the next step, you will discuss your own experiences with interactive learning. After that, you can see examples of interactive learning in action at the University of Groningen.

In this video Dr. Stacey Donofrio will explain Kolb’s learning theory. Guiding your students through Kolb’s experiential learning cycle will have a beneficial effect on their learning outcomes.

At the end of the video she will provide some examples of how the theory is implemented at the University of Groningen. Find out more by listening to Stacey.

View Stacey’s profile on FutureLearn.


  • Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

  • Kolb, A.Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2011). Experiential learning theory: a dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education, and development. In Armstrong, S.J. (Ed.), The Sage Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development (pp. 42-68). London, England: Sage.

  • Kolb, D.A. (1984). The process of experiential learning. In Kolb, D.A. (Ed.), Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development (pp. 20-39). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  • Lenning, O.T., Hill, D.M., Saunders, K.P., Solan, A., & Stokes, A. (2013). Powerful Learning Communities: a guide to developing student, faculty and professional learning communities to improve student success and organizational effectiveness. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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