Active Learning: Approaches and Theories

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Nowadays the learning process requires continuous improvement as there is a change of priorities and social values (Mitchell et al., 2013). Technological progress becomes a means to achieve such a level of production that meet the satisfaction of human requirements (Geffen, 2014). Therefore, traditional teaching techniques require a radical change concerning strategy and tactics. This paper is aimed at revealing the essence of active learning approaches, namely, its four theories comprising behaviorist, cognitive, social, and humanistic resulting in the discussion of their appropriateness and efficiency to engage students when planning teaching in the classroom environment.

Active Learning Approaches

The main characteristics of students should be competence and mobility. In this connection, the emphasis of the study transfers to the process of cognition, the effectiveness of which depends on the cognitive activity of the student and teaching approach (Morris & Faulk, 2012). The effectiveness of such study depends not only on the learning content but also on the strategy of learning individually or collectively, in authoritarian and humanistic terms, relying on attention, perception, memory, the whole personal potential of human, or use of reproductive or active learning methods (Mann, 2010). Thus, active learning approaches are a way to activate learning and cognitive activity of students leading them to dynamic mental and practical activities in the process of mastering the material when both a teacher and a student actively participate in the learning process.


Behaviorism is the psychological approach studying human behavior. In the behaviorism concept, a human is primarily understood as a respondent and learning person with certain reactions and actions. The principal idea of behaviorist theory as a psychological-pedagogical concept is that student behavior is a controlled process. According to Kay and Kibble (2016), “educators adopting a behaviorist approach are concerned with what students do (responses) as a result of environmental cues (antecedents or stimuli) and environmental consequences” (18). Modern behaviorism actively develops in different directions, enriching by means of new ideas and methods of learning and teaching. As a matter of fact, the organization of teaching and learning plays an important role. Precisely speaking, the approach consists of competency-based learning, person-centered learning, and problem-based learning.

Competence is shown in a new activity when transferring knowledge in a new irregular situation. If the goal of the study is the competency-based approach, the universal method of activity would be competence, in other words, the relevant expertise of personal attitude and the subject of activity (Oermann, 2015). The main purpose of learning from the perspective of competency-based approach is the formation of personality, the development of its inclinations and abilities providing efficient operation in all spheres of public life (Cate & Billett, 2014). The competency-based approach creates necessary conditions for the full realization of students’ capabilities, their self-determination, and self-development through the establishment of competence and personal qualities (Pijl-Zieber, Barton, Konkin, Awosoga, & Caine, 2014). It allows successful operating in new, uncertain, or problematic situations in their personal, professional, and social life.

In person-centered learning, the key mission of teaching is to form a system of values that would provide a high level of interest, responsibility, and creative attitude to the student’s learning process and practice. It does not reduce standards of theoretical learning and skills of professional activity but changes ways of achieving them (McCormack & McCance, 2010). The most important element of this method of teaching is the formation of the active position of students in the learning process as well as the maximum development of their creative initiative (Spooner, 2015). This approach does not require coercion, and the use of an aversive control is minimal.

The problem-based learning implements the principle of problematical approach. First, the content of the teaching material is designed as a system of educational problems reflecting the contradictions of science, practice, and learning activities (Frambach, Driessen, Chan, & Vleuten, 2012). Second, the process of the educational activity occurs in the form of dialogical communication and interaction between teacher and students (West, Clark, & Jasper, 2007). The indirect management of cognitive activity is carried out by the problem and information issues prepared by the teacher or arising in the course of introduction, analysis, and resolution of problematic situations (Williams, 2001). Problematic issues are directed to the future pointing the essence of the educational problems that should be resolved.

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive psychology has created a new trend in teaching – cognitive teaching and learning approach. Under cognitive pedagogical technologies, one understands the learning process of intellectual development of students based on a modular representation of educational information (Sternberg & Zhang, 2001). Within the framework of the cognitive approach, the student is considered to be an active and conscious participant of the learning process rather than the object of teaching activities (Emerson, 2007). In other words, one might observe subject -subject relationships between students and the teacher when the learning process has personally and socially conditioned character. The approach does not contradict the strategy of cooperation and interactive teaching methods which are so relevant to the modern teaching and takes them on board.

One of the central concepts of cognitive approach is the concept of a cognitive schema. People perceive information using a set of cognitive schemes available to them (White & Ewan, 2013). Human perception is an active process of information gathering carried out with the help of special cognitive schemes that are formed in the process of learning throughout life. Therefore, experience, knowledge, and skills have a critical impact on the completeness of the perception of real objects and events. Consequently, teaching should be regarded as the formation of cognitive schemas that are relevant to those types of information that need to be learned to apply it in professional life.

Cognitive approach contributes to the development of broad-minded students. Students become able to critically perceive controversial ideas, tendencies and analyze and design their activities (Keating, 2011). They become self-sufficient in terms of uncertainty and the acquisition of new knowledge and have sustained desire for self-improvement and strive for creative self-realization. The knowledge and capabilities obtained with this approach promote the development of a high level of intelligence, creativity formation, the accumulation of practical experience, and the formation of necessary conditions for critical thinking.

Social Learning Theory

The basic substance of the social learning theory is that people do not learn through direct reinforcement, but through observation models (Lapkin, Levett-Jones, & Gilligan, 2013). The teaching process takes place under the supervision of the behavior of the model and the mental repetition of its actions. Then the observed behavior is simulated, and the cycle is completed. As a result, it is considered that a person is able to reproduce the observed behavior. All in all, the phenomenon of behavior reproduction, otherwise known as modeling, includes four processes: attitude, storing, motor reproduction, and motivation.

According to the social learning theory, human behavior is governed by complex interactions between the internal phenomena including faith, expectations, and self-image and environmental factors. People shape the environment, and, at the same time, the environment shapes people. Through verbal and figurative representations, the individual analyzes the experience, models, and stores it to the extent that would serve as a benchmark for future performance. The experience modeling affects the learning through the informative function of experience.

It is expected that learning occurs only when determinants of individual behavior regulation are included in the form of two types of reinforcement, particularly, indirect and direct. Indirect reinforcement appears when simulating the behavior of the selected model and reinforcements from outside. Direct reinforcement suggests inner consciousness and motivation. The self-efficacy of the individual in social learning theory implies a conscious person’s ability to cope with specific and complex situations and make an impact on the efficiency and functioning of the personality as a whole. A person, who has realized his self-efficacy, has made great efforts to meet the challenges, than those who had doubted in their abilities. A high self-efficacy is associated with the expectation of success and typically leads to a positive result. Therefore, it promotes the self-esteem of the person. Conversely, the low self-efficacy is associated with the expectation of failure results and, thus, lowers self-esteem. The person considering himself unable to cope with difficult situations pays excessive attention to his shortcomings and constantly engages in self-criticism of his incompetence. In contrast, the person considering himself as self-efficient imagines a good scenario providing positive guidance to the organization of his behavior of successful actions and decisions.

Humanistic Learning Theory

The essence of the humanistic learning theory is that the personality and its capacities should be in the centre of the study. In this case, the content of the study is directed to the development of cognitive, communicative, creative, and other universal cultural and historical human capabilities (Duffy, 2001). Moreover, the ability to self-organization, to independent solutions of professional problems, and the expansion of the value-motivational sphere of personality are also significant. One of the difficulties in the implementation of this approach is the need to subject-subject relationship between the teacher and students.

Humanization of the educational process should be understood as a rejection of authoritarian teaching with its pressure on the individual denying the possibility of the establishment of normal human relationships between teacher and students (Waltz, Jenkins, & Han, 2014). Instead, the transition to student-centered learning and teaching gives the absolute value of personal freedom and activities of students. To humanize the teaching process means to create an environment in which students cannot learn less than their capacity and cannot remain indifferent participants or bystanders. Humanistic teaching requires adaptation to students providing an atmosphere of comfort and psychological security (Hegazi & Wilson, 2013). The humanistic teaching accompanies the studying process with plenty of innovative components. For example, students are allowed to take part in choosing what they want to learn or to find a way to their capabilities (Kuiper & Pesut, 2004). Additionally, they could realize that learning is interesting or that discovering that some things are very difficult to study and would require effort, concentration, and self-discipline, and others (Daly, Speedy, & Jackson, 2004).

Ways to Increase Student’s Involvement in the Learning Process

The next part of the paper is devoted to the discussion of considerations that might be applied to engage students by means of active learning approaches when planning teaching in classroom settings.

First, it seems appropriate to offer possible solutions connected with technological progress (Burton & Ormrod, 2011). In recent years, a set of information resources is greatly expanded. One might note educational TV, audio and video facilities, and the Internet. The teaching process could be carried out remotely or interactively taking into account the individual characteristics of students and methods of learning along with their motivation and learning objectives (Evans, Ellis, Norman, & Luke, 2014). The quality of knowledge might be tested by an extensive system of current and boundary control that could be carried out in written and oral forms individually or in a group, or in the course of a personal interview with the use of modern computer testing. The above suggestions would pay attention to every particular student if teaching process is remote or takes into account peculiarities of every student according to person-centered learning. Likewise, it could implement the social learning theory in the case if multimedia teaching occurs in a group.

Within the cognitive learning theory, a gaming strategy might be considered (Bradshaw & Lowenstein, 2016). Teaching sessions should be organized so that each student purposefully implements educational activities according to his educational needs. Simulation games are models of the studied phenomena and processes in a certain subject area. If the game involves students, they have more cognitive motivation related to the objectives of the simulation entities, so-called role-playing purposes. At the same time, the dual educational behavior appears in the game. Students receive the necessary knowledge and, at the same time, actively participate in their practical application. According to Hosford and Siders (2010), students prefer active learning to the reflective one. Consequently, the gaming strategy would undoubtedly increase their interest to the study.

In order to achieve the efficiency of the humanistic learning theory, it seems important to use some unobtrusive tools such as prompts and tips clarifying directions students should apply. It goes without saying that prompts should be free of pressure and strict instructions. Students should have freedom of choice while teacher’s role is only to direct them.

On the contrary, the competency-based approach requires instructions and regulations of the process of assimilation algorithms activity (behavior). It should be noted that the teaching process should be designed in accordance with the professional competence and social norms. The acceleration of learning acquisition occurs due to the anticipatory description of upcoming activities, stages of activity, potential difficulties, and their solutions (Billings & Halstead, 2016). Therefore, the quality and relevance of instructions are crucial.

Besides, Vroom’s expectancy theory seems considerable to implement active learning. The theory of expectancy is based on the assumption that the presence of the active demand is not the only motivation (Gyurko, 2011). A person should also hope that he is certainly able to meet his expectations choosing the right type of behavior. Vroom defines motivation as the product of the following variables:

  • expectancy that efforts would have the desired results;
  • expectancy that the award would follow achieved results;
  • valence of the expected value of the remuneration.

The higher the value of each of the factors, the greater the motivation. If one of the factors is absent, the motivation is also zero. The theory proves the importance of students’ active position.

In addition, different types of seminars and discussions might be useful as well. The method is based on the principle of collective discussion of studied issues (Govranos & Newton, 2014). The main purpose of these sessions is to provide students with the opportunity of practical use of theoretical knowledge in conditions simulating reality.

Thus, the main function of the teacher is to create an environment conducive to creative expression, personality development, and self-reliance of students shaping their system of values. In its turn, it would enhance students’ level of awareness and responsibility in the learning process. All in all, teachers should not only consider teaching strategies but also increase student’s learning activity. Therefore, it is necessary to use the mixed method of learning that would depend on the particular theme, type of assignment, or students’ behavior.


In conclusion, it should be stressed that active methods of learning and teaching encourage students to active mental and practical activities. Active learning involves the use of such methods that are aimed at student’s memorization and reproduction as well as self-mastering of knowledge and professional skills. The paper discusses four central theories of active learning including behaviorist, cognitive, social, and humanistic and supposes issues that help to achieve students’ active learning engagement. In particular, it was stated that such methods as gaming, multimedia technologies, prompts and tips, instructions, Vroom’s expectancy theory, and regulations might contribute to the effectiveness of active learning and teaching approaches and the engagement of students in the educational process.


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ChalkyPapers. "Active Learning: Approaches and Theories." July 23, 2022.