Active learning strategies for professional development

Two adult learners practicing active learning.
Two adult learners practicing active learning.

Professional development remains important for many careers, but especially in the educational setting. Effective professional development can empower teachers and educators to drive better outcomes for students across their learning journey. 

Educational leaders can play a key role in determining the effectiveness of professional development by considering several factors, including student needs, current research and its alignment to adult learning principles. 

One way to deliver professional learning is through active learning, a method of learning where adult learners are actively or experientially involved in their professional development. Let’s look at active learning strategies and their importance for professional learning.

What is active learning? 

In active learning, adult learners engage in their development by thinking, investigating, creating and discussing ideas. As opposed to passive learning, where adult learners are simply presented with information, active learning requires practising new skills, problem solving, asking complex questions and creating and explaining solutions.  

Active learning helps adult learners take risks, share their thoughts, defend their solutions and ultimately build confidence in the development of new skills. 

Constructivist learning theory

Active learning was developed from the constructivist learning theory, by educational theorists Dewey, Gagne, Bruner and Piaget.

Constructivist learning theory is based on the idea that knowledge is created through experience, and for that to occur, adult learners need to be active participants in their learning. As learners experience learning events, they reflect on their own experiences, and either incorporate existing information into existing frameworks or develop new frameworks if needed. 

Active learning can facilitate new experiences, which can help learners confront misconceptions and develop new mental models that are more likely to help them acquire skills and retain information. 

Benefits and challenges of active learning  

Active learning is essential for professional development. Like all learning, though, active learning comes with many benefits, but also challenges.

Benefits of active learning 

Active learning has several benefits that help learners absorb information. 

Increases engagement and motivation 

As opposed to passive learning, where students mostly listen and observe, active learning involves doing the task or practising the skills that are required to be mastered. This enables students to develop a deeper, more practical understanding of what they are required to do, which in turn helps improve their chances of succeeding at the task.  

Allowing learners to practise the task at hand helps them develop confidence in their skills, which works to increase engagement and motivation.  

Improves contextual understanding

When students learn passively, they only observe or listen to one piece of information at a time. Active learning, however, is different.  

Through active learning, learners can understand the context behind what they are doing. This is because they become responsible for their learning, and have the opportunity to discuss, critique, question and challenge the competencies and context that surround the skill.  

For this reason, active learning helps improve contextual understanding of any type of professional development.  

Encourages learning through trial and error 

When adult learners learn passively, they must generally accept the information they are given. However, active learning means going through trial and error. This includes engaging in activities such as quizzes, assessments and opportunities to practise the skill and receive feedback. These mechanisms help adult learners immediately evaluate their understanding, and improve as a result. 

Builds essential skills, such as critical thinking and decision making

Adult learners are more sophisticated than child learners and require learning that activates a broad range of skills, including critical thinking and decision making. 

Active learning activities such as debates, discussions and question-and-answer sessions enable adult learners to think critically about the skill they are trying to acquire. Moreover, when adult learners have the opportunity to critique a skill and how it is learnt, they learn to make important decisions about how to proceed with their professional development. 

Facilitates collaboration

As opposed to passive learning, where an instructor leads training, active learning requires learners to work together to discuss what they are learning and develop solutions. To do so, learners must learn how to collaborate more effectively.  

Challenges of active learning   

While there are many benefits of active learning, there are also some challenges. 

Memorisation is still necessary

Even with the most effective active learning, memorisation is still sometimes necessary. For example, adult learners who undertake a leadership course may well be able to practise, critique and discuss the different types of leadership models available to them. 

They will, however, still have to memorise these to do so. 

Can discourage respect for teachers and experts

One benefit of active learning is that adult learners actively debate and critique all elements of what is being discussed. But this can also be a disadvantage. 

While debate encourages learner confidence, it can also undermine trust in the teacher or expert who is teaching the skill. In addition to this, not every skill requires learning via trial and error: some can simply be learnt quickly and easily. 

Not all outcomes are predictable 

When participating in active learning, the outcome that theoretically should be achieved is that learners acquire a new skill. However, this may not always be the case. 

As adult learners debate, discuss and question what they are learning, they may conclude that learning a particular skill is not worthwhile. For this reason, active learning may, at times, not be as effective as it should be. 

Learners can develop misconceptions 

For active learning to be effective, educators must be extremely skilled in guiding lessons and carefully listening to learners’ contributions, otherwise, learners may develop misconceptions. 

In active learning, educators have less control over the content of a given lesson, and must carefully listen and guide adult learners toward understanding. If they aren’t able to do this, lessons may veer off course and learners can develop misconceptions about the skills they are required to learn. 

Experiential learning vs. active learning 

Another type of learning that shares similarities to active learning, and is also extremely important for modern educators, is experiential learning. 

What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is a type of learning where students meaningfully participate in the process or experience what they are trying to learn. It also involves active reflection upon what they have just learnt. Educators have to not only design a learning activity that helps learners practise a skill, but they also have to design a reflection activity that can help embed what has been learnt.  

What are the differences between active learning and experiential learning? 

There’s no doubt that experiential learning can form part of active learning. However, there are some differences.  

In active learning, students build on prior knowledge and experiences, even if this means challenging what they have previously learnt. 

Experiential learning, however, is more about learning through meaningful participation and then reflecting on what has been learnt in that particular session, as opposed to building on previous knowledge.  

Examples of active learning and experiential learning 

Active and experiential learning can be used in different ways. 

Active learning example

Active learning in a leadership development course might look like this: An educator is teaching about different learning styles but can see that the learners are not following. So, they instruct the learners to form groups, and then discuss how they might execute different learning styles if they were managing a team. 

Experiential learning example

If the educator was using experiential learning, the above activity might look a little different. Instead of asking learners to discuss different leadership styles, the educator might ask the learners to form groups, select a task to address, and lead that task to completion using different leadership styles. 

Active learning strategies for professional development  

To put active learning into place for professional development purposes, modern educators need to understand the different active learning strategies available. 

Reciprocal questioning

Reciprocal questioning is where learners take on the role of the expert and create their questions about a particular topic. Using this strategy, adult learners can think critically about a topic and facilitate the process of discussion among other learners in their group. 

This can be particularly useful for cross-functional teams who are all completing a particular course, as it helps encourage thinking about a topic from different perspectives. 

Case studies

Using case studies is an active learning strategy whereby an organisation uses actual stories of cases or interactions that have occurred. The purpose is to demonstrate to adult learners how a process works. Case studies are particularly powerful as they enable learners to see how something works in real life under real conditions. 

This strategy may be particularly useful when it comes to professional development that involves understanding customer needs. Case studies can help professionals understand situations from the perspective of their customers or clients. 

Peer teaching technique

Another effective strategy is a technique called peer teaching. This technique encompasses several different activities where adult learners teach their peers. 

There are several ways to do this. One example is a buddy or mentor program, where a more senior or experienced learner is partnered with someone with less experience so they can pass on their knowledge and experience. Peer teaching helps encourage collaboration and accountability. 

Panel discussion

A panel discussion is an active learning strategy that enables adult learners to listen to experts and often engage by asking audience questions. The learners themselves can choose to be panel experts, or invite an expert panel from outside. 

This strategy is particularly effective as it enables meaningful discussion and provides an opportunity for learners to take on an expert role. They can also serve as members of the audience who actively engage with the panel. 

The muddiest point technique

With the muddiest point technique, learners take notes on the most confusing or unclear part of a class discussion or lesson, then clarify it later with the teacher or via their research. 

This simple technique allows adult learners to actively engage with their learning, rate their knowledge and proactively seek answers where they don’t understand something.  

Blended learning, active learning and technology

When it comes to professional development, Australians are increasingly embracing online learning. It is being embraced so much that one in two employees is now being trained online (double the number from just four years ago).

Blended learning, or learning that combines online active learning strategies with classroom activities, has become increasingly popular. Educators often use techniques such as the flipped classroom, where adult learners read materials in their own time, and then use class time for problem solving.

Many online learning technologies enable this to happen. 

Video conferencing

Video conferencing technology has enabled adult learners to learn much more effectively online.

Companies that provide video conferencing solutions include Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. Although these solutions have been steadily growing in popularity in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic catalysed their usage, with Zoom adding 2.2 million monthly active users in 2020.

Live screen sharing 

Video conferencing provides ample opportunities for adult learners to engage in active learning for professional development, but often more than just discussion is required. 

For this reason, another great technology associated with video conferencing is the ability to live screen share. With this technology, adult learners can share presentations and current work to demonstrate their expertise. 

Online collaborative groups

Collaboration is key for active learning, and online collaboration groups enable this in several ways.  

From a professional development perspective, there are many different online collaboration groups that adult learners can engage in to further their learning. 

Examples of these include industry or profession-specific online forums, where participants can learn from more experienced peers. Another example is where professionals within different teams in an organisation collaborate via everyday chat apps, including Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Slack. 

Educational apps that support polling

Before, during or after a professional development session, educators and learners alike will want to know where they are at in their understanding and what they’ve mastered. For this reason, another educational technology that enables active learning is educational apps that support polling. 

These apps can be used to gauge learner knowledge, check skills and provide feedback on courses. 

Interactive presentations 

Another form of educational technology that enables active learning online is interactive presentation software that includes multiple multimedia features. This might include presentations made via Prezi (online software that enables users to use motion, zoom and spatial features) or other software that enables users to easily put together videos.  

Presentations made via software can be more engaging for adult learners.  

Active learning enables effective professional development 

Professional development is important to employees and employers alike. With the advancement of learning technologies, more and more professional development is being undertaken online. 

The challenge for modern educators is to combine the very best active learning strategies with cutting-edge technology. The goal is to enable the most effective professional development that benefits both employers and their employers and enables organisations to meet their learning goals.  

Your future in education starts today 

What does your future look like after completing a master’s degree in education? 

University of Canberra’s Master of Education course offers specialisations in leadership and STEM and can help you become a solution-focused leader and teacher of the future that you want to be.

To take the first step: