Active Learning: a matter of playing with scenarios, cases and problems?

Andrew Middleton

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

19 March 2021

Report from the Active Learning Network @ ARU meeting on 18 March 2021.

ARU’s Active Learning Network meets monthly for an hour to develop our thinking about teaching in an active curriculum. The network, and the sessions, are open to all. Typically, between 20 and 30 people take part. Recently we have extended that invitation to academic peers from other institutions.

There’s an unwritten rule – whatever we do should be participative and, while lurking is fine, mostly we try to come up with sessions that model our thinking and even allow for a little experimentation as we address different topics each time.

Last month we delved into the treacherous waters of theoretic frameworks to ask, ‘what are the common factors in active learning pedagogies?’ Anyone who has done the PG Cert HE or read anything about university teaching and learning will be familiar with those frameworks which are usually called things like ‘something-based learning’: problem, project, scenario, decision, enquiry/inquiry, game, decision, simulation, team, case, research or decision all come under this ‘?-based learning’ nomenclature. Similarly, ideas like experiential, authentic and transformative learning have their extensive literatures too.

But aren’t they all really forms of active learning? Yes, they all have something in common which makes them part of that active family of pedagogies. Our challenge was to explore this common space.

Using a common space activity

The move online has been good for the ALN. Previously, we had done our best to run events using the video conference link between Chelmsford and Cambridge. Working as an active learning set using Teams has suited us, however. It’s an example of the ‘digital advantage’ – now we share a connected Teams space to work together productively through co-creation activities.

Last month, about 20 of us co-edited a PowerPoint slide in a ‘common space’ activity. This involved making the PowerPoint sharable and inviting others ‘into’ the slide set by sharing the link to it through the Teams Chat. This means you can use a slide as a common digital whiteboard – a space for responding to a provocation.

Everyone followed the link to open the same PowerPoint file. The provocation question was presented on the shared slide, but otherwise it was peppered with text boxes that said, “edit me”. The activity began. Incredibly, one by one, each text box changed as people responded. It was as though a plague of ghost-like writers had taken over! While we could still hear each other from our Teams connection, mostly we were silent and focused. Over 10 minutes, we generated near 50 ideas in response to that question about the common factors of active learning (see figure 1: Ideas generated in PowerPoint.)

Then we opened mics, and in turn, each of us was asked to select one idea produced by someone else and ask the ‘author’ to explain why they had written their word. Occasionally there was a bit of to-and-fro as responses raised other ideas, or further clarification or connections were explored. At one point, for example, there was a discussion about whether ‘uncertain knowledge’ was equally valuable in the arts and sciences.

By the end of the hour everyone had picked a word and responded to questions on their own ideas. Each of us had learnt a little more about what active learning means by sharing our thinking, listening to each other, as well as experiencing the interaction.

After the event synthesis

The only problem with this co-creative approach is that it can generate a lot of data. We have used shared Word documents for other activities. While everyone ends up with access to the ideas and can make use of that in whatever way is useful, co-creation as a learning strategy really comes into its own when at least one person takes the co-created artefact to the next stage. In theory, (and if the technique is used with students) the synthesis or ‘making sense’ phase is where the learning can step up a level. For example, in this example, I carried out a quick content analysis activity.

Reflecting on the live discussion, the ideas fell into about 5 categories that together describe active learning: What happens; What we value; What we focus on; How it feels; Being together. From this we can say:

Active learning involves teacher facilitation and learner agency. Together, we learn through co-operative and networked approaches with the aim of co-creating knowledge in response to problems and scenarios. Our methods are often creative and semi-structured. The nature of the activity tends to evolve through challenges that require research, exploration and experimentation, interaction and feedback, reflection and synthesis. The opportunity to make connections between ideas or people is always there.


That feels like an hour well spent. Perhaps more than anything, active learning is ambiguous, slippery and, potentially hard to grasp. Recognising this and exploring possibilities with peers is supportive and can be good fun.

Come along to our future sessions or find out more by emailing: [email protected]

Or going to the Active Learning Canvas site.

The common factors of active learning

  • Challenging: Critical evaluation; Students as researchers; Interactive
  • Questioning: Exploratory; Student-generated; Creative
  • Semi-structured: Co-design; Student-centred; Facilitation
  • Evolves: Reflection; Real-world; Authentic
  • Group and teamwork: Requires synthesis; Studio; Problems, enquiries, scenarios
  • Collaboration: Agency; Student agency; Interesting
  • Real-world informed: Networked learning; Clinical examples; Working together
  • Interdisciplinary: Connections


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