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What benefits do active learning experiences offer?

This article looks in detail at how knowledge and skills are formed in the brain, and what benefits active learning offers.

Learners need to do things both mental and physical in order to create lasting connections in their brains. Let’s compare a trainer to a fitness coach as they both encourage development.

If someone wishes to get fit for a particular purpose, a fitness instructor provides exercises that develop the relevant muscle groups and movements. If we need to train healthcare colleagues, we create a series of learning experiences that enable them to be able to perform the task competently and safely.

Practising new skills

For example, if it is identified that ward receptionists require skills to deal calmly and safely with an aggressive person, training may be designed which provides a series of learning steps.

In the first step, learners may explore the psychology of aggression. They may then learn about methods known to effectively aid the diffusion of tension.

Next, practice exercises are facilitated so that trainees can try out some techniques. The training might then progress to dealing with a person who acts in an aggressive manner. In this way, the staff gradually developmental connections and models that prepare them for the task.

The practice of new skills supported by feedback is known to increase the likelihood that newly learned skills will be employed in the learners’ everyday roles.

What is active learning?

Active training involves learners both physically and mentally. It usually involves some form of practice and learner feedback.

What is passive learning?

Passive training generally ‘delivers’ information in presentation or lecture form. It relies on learners undertaking their own follow-up activities and revision to embed the material.

Below are excerpts from two different Iesson plans (the subject title has been omitted). Notice the difference between the teacher activity and learner activity columns in each plan.

Learner Activity Trainer Activity
Discuss concepts with others. Practice skills. Share peer feedback. Solve problems together Provide guidance and feedback.
Learner Activity Trainer Activity
Listen. Ask questions at the end. Present content slides in a coherent sequence. Explaining key points. Talk through slides as the presentation progresses.

You probably noticed the second excerpt contained more activity for the trainer and little for the trainees. Inexperienced trainers sometimes create plans like these because they feel they should be highly active as the ‘expert in the room’. However, the first plan is more likely to ensure lasting learning takes place.

Can online learning also be passive or active?

Below are excerpts from two different online learning plans. Do you think they show a similar degree of contrast between active and passive learning?

Learner Activity Trainer Activity
Read the material and engage in quizzes. Post thoughts in an online forum. Comment on other learners’ posts. Moderate forum.
Learner Activity Trainer Activity
Read material. Complete short MCQ. Design and create learning. Ensure accuracy of the content. Report on completion of computer marked assessment.


There isn’t much information in this example, so the answer depends partly on how engaging the multiple-choice question (MCQ) test is. If it involves recognition of a phrase read minutes earlier from three implausible alternatives, then the approach will be relatively passive.

If it contains a choice of answers that all appear possible at first glance it is likely to be more active. This is because if none of the answers contains easily recognisable sentences, learners will have to actively apply the learning in order to choose the best answer.

A real-life contrast between passive and active training

We recently visited two hospitals (pre-lockdown), each of which had employed external trainers to run first-line supervisory courses for them. The trainers had no connection other than teaching the same subject.

At the first location, we noticed the trainer always stood at the front of the room and read from slides of PowerPoint text. In fact, every time we passed the room, the participants were sitting motionless, staring at the screen. The content appeared to be relevant and accurate, but the approach was passive.

At the second location, the trainer’s methods were a complete contrast. Whenever we passed her classroom, the participants were engaged in an activity of some kind. She continually moved around the room, providing formative feedback and encouragement.

We later asked the hospitals about the post-course evaluations they had each received. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the feedback from the group with the active trainer was positive and appreciative, whereas the passive group responded that they felt bored for much of the time.

However, we should add that we do not know the degree to which the participants of either course put their learning into practice.

Active learning provides formative experiences

Formative experiences have a lasting influence on a person’s development. Active training tends to provide such experiences because learners receive feedback that motivates and encourages them.

If learners simply sit and listen, opportunities to receive formative feedback are rare. Training that provides formative experiences can be particularly valuable to learners whose past experience of education may not have been positive.

In healthcare, many skills are performed under the gaze of a patient and come under a degree of pressure. Active training prepares learners for carrying out tasks.

Emergency medical technicians

For example, Emergency Medical Technicians must learn how to safely approach a casualty and check their vital signs. As part of their training, they are required to demonstrate this skill with someone acting as a collapsed person.

Paramedics in training

The presence of a degree of realism in training brings the experience closer to that of real life.

Formative feedback on performance in such scenarios helps build confidence that will accompany a newly qualified EMT into a real situation. When performing their skills, the environment is sufficiently familiar they are able to think and act calmly.

After attending their first emergency call, EMTs sometimes describe feeling like they were in a training scenario. This can be a true credit to the quality of the training they received.

Roleplay or practice?

Realistic practice is an important part of learning. Practising interpersonal skills in the safe environment of a classroom can be extremely effective. However, the term ‘role-play’ can cause anxiety among some trainees. For this reason, it is often referred to as ‘practice’.

This is a perfectly acceptable approach because the only person playing a role is the patient or relative. It can help to have a volunteer from outside the group because it is often easier for learners to practice with someone unknown to them.

Playing a role should not be discounted as a learning method, however. Learners who put themselves in someone else’s shoes and consider what it might be like to be a patient can gain a new perspective. An example can be found in Moving & Handling training, where participants experience the vulnerability of being suspended in a patient hoist.

Active learning and social distancing

Active learner engagement can be achieved in live online teaching using video conferencing apps such as Zoom, Teams and Skype. These allow learners to join in with discussions, offer opinions and solve problems together.

Small group tasks such as creative problem solving can be held in virtual breakout rooms.

Breakout rooms

Breakout rooms are a readymade function in Zoom. (In Teams they require setting up first as additional channels). The trainer can enter and leave breakout rooms just like they would in a classroom session.

For interpersonal skills training such as Assertiveness, Appraisal, Interviewing and Negotiation & Influencing, learners can participate in live practice observed by other course members.

Peer feedback

If they reach a point where they are unsure what to do or say next, other group members offer suggestions. After the exercise, just as in a classroom session, peer feedback is provided by other group members.

Formative feedback is also provided by the trainer.

Branched video scenarios

Although perhaps less engaging than live practice, the non-live practice of interpersonal skills can be created online. A particularly effective design uses ‘branched’ video scenarios. Learners are provided with a short video clip that sets a scene.

They are offered a selection of actions and choose the most appropriate. They then see the impact of their chosen answer played out by an actor. Each answer connects with a different video clip and learners can explore the impact of alternative choices.

For example, a learner on a supervisory course may be shown a clip in which a member of staff describes receiving verbal abuse from a colleague. They watch the conversation evolve according to the answers they provide.

Both of the designs described above offer practice and feedback. However, because the non-live exercise is prepared in advance, feedback cannot be tailored to a particular individual. Nonetheless, if live online training is not an option, branched scenarios offer a viable alternative.

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Train the Healthcare Trainer

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