Beyond Active Learning

The term active learning is thrown around a lot, and almost every librarian I know is sure that active learning strategies are the best approach to teaching information literacy (or as I prefer, 21st century literacy). But, have you ever asked yourself, what does active learning really mean? That’s a good question, because as often as it’s used, you’d think that it would be well-defined. In reality, active learning is ill-defined. Some define it as simply engaging students in activities; some define it as student-centered teaching; and others define it as learning through interaction. To some degree, all these definitions touch on active learning, but I wanted to find out more. I came across an article titled Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities (Chi, 2009), and I’d like to share what I learned.

In her article, Chi attempts to describe active learning, and differentiate it from constructive learning and interactive learning (see table below). Do you recognize the instructional strategies that you use?

Active Constructive Interactive
Characteristics Doing something physically Producing outputs that contain ideas that go beyond the presented information Dialoguing substantively on the same topic, and not ignoring a partner’s contributions
Overt activities Engaging Activities

Look, gaze, or fixate

Underline or highlight

Gesture or point


Manipulate objects or tapes



Self-construction Activities

Explain or elaborate

Justify or provide reasons

Connect or link

Construct a concept map

Reflect, or self-monitor

Plan and predict outcomes

Generate hypotheses

Guided-construction Activities in Instructional Dialogue:

Respond to scaffoldings

Revise errors from feedback

Sequential or Co-construction Activities in Joint Dialogue:

Build on partner’s contributions

Argue, defend

Confront or challenge

Cognitive processes Attending Processes

Activate existing knowledge

Assimilate, encode, or store new information

Search existing knowledge

Creating Processes

Infer new knowledge

Integrate new information with existing knowledge

Organize own knowledge for coherence

Repair own faulty knowledge

Restructure own knowledge

Jointly Creating Processes

Creating processes that incorporate a partner’s contributions

(Chi, 2009)

Chi asserts that interactive activities are better than constructive activities; constructive activities are better than active activities; and active activities are better than being passive. Active activities are commonly used in library instruction and are easier to design and implement. This works well for some types of library instruction, such as library orientation. However, to achieve deeper learning, constructive and interactive activities need to be integrated more often into library instruction.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Use concept mapping as more than just a brainstorming tool. You can use it to help students conceptually understand all the interconnective relationships in the entire research process. (Recommended reading: Modeling with Technology: Mindtools for Conceptual Change. David H. Jonassen. 9780131703452)
  • Webquests offer a strategic approach for scaffolding learning.
  • Debates are a tried and true interactive activity, and lend themselves well to the critical evaluation of information sources.
  • Use clickers for think-pair-share activities.

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