Active Learning on

Why Use Active Learning?

The basic answer is that it helps students to do better in History.

They improve their level of knowledge and their understanding of the processes of doing History. Of course, that’s not automatic. It requires a great deal of planning and skill on the part of the teacher – that’s why teachers are crucial and can’t be replaced by computers despite what some politicians think.

And yes, students will enjoy their History more too which is important. If you enjoy something you usually do it better. Students do respond positively and enjoy the activities. The power of involvement in decision-making and role-play can also be surprising. Many years ago I tried a Saxon village simulation with first year undergraduates, just for four weeks at the beginning of their course. I was a little disappointed by the outcomes at the time. Two and a half years later, after graduation, I discovered that nearly all of them could remember the names and roles that had had in the simulation, what roles other students had had and some of the issues they had had to deal with.

Here in brief are some important benefits of using the kinds of activities described on this site before I look at some issues in a little more detail:

• Everyone can contribute effectively, regardless of literacy levels, and realise that hard work equals hard thinking, not necessarily lots of writing!

• Follow-up work benefits from both the degree of involvement and the clarity of thinking generated by the activity. Continual references can be made back to pupils' actions and reactions during activity, using that very powerful question 'Do you remember when …?' to focus students' thinking.

• Activities can enable students to realise and understand the complexity of a developing situation, not see an event as a single moment in time when simple, unemotional, cut and dried decisions were made. This helps students to develop more sophisticated explanations.

• Activities can also lead into the vital question of 'how do we know that these recreated attitudes and feelings are accurate?' Empathetic reconstructions must relate to evidence. Therefore an important follow-up activity is to look at the available evidence and ask pupils how certain they can be about the accuracy of their feelings in role - completely certain, fairly or totally uncertain.

One final introductory point – if you’re a new teacher you’re dependent on the luck of the draw – what kind of department you are allocated to or get your first post in. If you don’t see the kinds of activities described on this site it doesn’t mean they don’t work - they may well be being used effectively in another school down the road. That links to another key point – the use of the activities on this site is not related to the difficulty of class management. I know of schools where teachers use these techniques successfully with what can be termed highly ‘challenging’ students. The aim of the guidance on the site is to take much of the risk out of using these activities and to help you use them successfully.

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Effective Learning

Defining ‘learning styles’ is easily overdone. I prefer the simpler assertion that all students benefit from variety of activity – variety keeps our levels of interest and concentration high. We don’t lapse into ‘it’ll just be more of the same’ thinking and nod off.  Of course variety includes sitting quietly reading and writing as well as undertaking the kinds of activities described on this site. Teachers benefit from quiet too!

However it is important to remember that some proportion of students in an average class are do-ers and movers, the ones who start fidgeting if trapped behind their desks for too long. From that point of view, a constant diet of written work done sitting down can be a strain so structured movement may prevent such students erupting with frustration and in turn help class discipline rather than put it at risk.

It’s also worth thinking about how we improve at other activities – is there anything to copy from the fact that we learn a cricket stroke or tennis shot by being coached while doing it? It’s said we remember 20% of what we hear and 80% of what we experience (and 90% of what we teach) – that must guide us in the kinds of things we ask students to do.

One thing I am convinced of, after several decades of experience, is that 40 or 50 minute lectures are, in general, the least effective of all teaching methods – and that includes at A level and university, especially when used to introduce a topic. By all means talk for 5 or maybe 10 minutes but intersperse talking with questions, short activities, what would you have done if … and all kinds of other activities designed to keep students on the ball.

There is a great deal more work being done these days on how students learn most effectively - this was an issue scarcely broached 30 years ago - but in recent years has become much more central to teachers' discussions. Therefore keep a close eye on, for example, blogs run by history teachers who are exploring this area. At the time of typing (October 2014) it’s definitely worth looking at the following but in the course of time other value contributions will appear so don’t assume this is a definitive list. I have no idea when I’ll update it but that’s the way of websites as large as this!

The blogs developed by Nick Dennis, Alex Ford and Michael Fordham are:

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Enhanced understanding - target learning problems

At the beginning of this section I said that activities help students get better at History. This happens, not just because of higher concentration levels and greater enjoyment but because the key to constructing and using these activities successfully is building them around the learning problems that students have with a topic. Activities should be structured to focus on one or more of a wide variety of objectives such as:

• developing knowledge of a sequence of events

• understanding contemporary attitudes and motives

• developing explanations or analysing patterns of change and continuity

• challenging misconceptions about past events and thinking

• analysing why historians have differing interpretations of an event or person

There’s plenty more – and the key is not just to construct an activity on ‘The Civil War’ but on what problems students have in learning about and understanding the Civil War. Each activity in the Resources section begins by identifying its objectives and relating them to the learning problems that students have. The activities are therefore not bolted-on extras or end of term treats. They are serious learning activities – but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun as well.

This diagram shows how activities bring together all the components of teaching and learning. When we begin as teachers we tend to focus on just a couple of the balls – our own knowledge (for fear of getting something wrong) and class management (for fear of lots of things!). Quickly we realise that we need to focus on the historical process as well – teaching students how to use sources etc etc. But that’s all looking at teaching – what we do – and it’s vital to ask ‘how do students learn?’ – hence the last two balls which usually take a bit of experience to get to grips with. We have to focus on how students learn and why they struggle with individual activities and topics because that’s what brings learning and teaching together – and that’s when we become much more effective in helping students learn.


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Do You Remember When ...?

When thinking about teaching it’s not enough just to think about what students will take away from an individual lesson but what they will take away from a year or a whole course such as Key Stage 3. How do all those lessons build together to create a framework of knowledge and understanding? One of the critical advantages of many active learning activities is that they make an impact on students’ consciousness – either because it’s simply been a particularly unusual and enjoyable lesson – and therefore memorable – or because, as a result of being placed ‘inside’ a past situation and having to think in the role of a historical person they’ve discovered that they care about that person or event. It’s very hard to say ‘Do you remember when we did page 43 sources A, B and C last year?’ but ‘Do you remember when we used the hairdryer to stop William invading England?’ – what did we learn about sources then?’ is much more likely to trigger responses. And that ‘Do you remember when …?’ question is critical for turning a sequence of individual lessons into a course and why this kind of activity is vital to achieve the aim of the new KS3 programme of Study, following strands such as conflict across Key Stage 3.


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Better Written Work

The development of constructive talk in these activities supports the arguments advanced by Ian Luff and Rachel Rudham in Teaching History that listening and speaking play a vital role in stimulating thinking, turning half-formed ideas into clear arguments and ultimately and very important in promoting more effective writing. Rachel Rudham writes tellingly of pupils previously 'going through the motions of completing a piece of written work without real thought' but then, motivated by carefully structured listening and speaking activities, achieving a depth of thinking that 'greatly enhanced the standard'.

In some activities, for example, students have to think about and use language more precisely because words encapsulate attitudes. In debriefing from  Je suis le Roi! should the English talk about the Normans as their 'lords' or their 'masters'; whether England is 'ruled' or 'occupied'; whether the northerners were 'punished' or 'massacred'?

Other reasons why activities can enhance written work is that involvement and identification with roles increase students’ ability to remember information and situations and leads them to care more about the issues. Having been involved in thinking 'from the inside' of a situation, students feel that the topic matters and want to do justice to it on paper. As Geoff Lyons has written, 'Arousing pupils' emotions .. is deliberately intended to help them understand that the topic matters'.

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More effective reading

This perhaps particularly applies to Advanced level but here years of experience of using these activities with older students have convinced me that they are an essential aid to improving reading, rather than a luxury that can be jettisoned for fear of wasting time. In an activity such as a structured role-play where they 'walk through' events and 'think from the inside' they are much more able get to grips with the overview of events, detail and complexities. The activity, requiring oral contributions and thinking, boosts students’ confidence and enables them to go on to read and make notes more efficiently. The page is no longer an obstacle course full of completely unfamiliar material. Using activities as introductions therefore enables students of all abilities (although most visibly with weaker students) to overcome initial obstacles in reading that they often bounce off. Far from wasting time, the approach saves time in the long-run, because it enables students to work more effectively on their own.

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Some activities reach the parts that more objective and traditional activities can’t reach. For example, they can help students understand the undefinable and often un-evidenced elements that play a part in decision making. Why did so many people join the revolt of 1381? Only a role-play is likely to help pupils understand the fear of being left behind alone in the village, the moral pressure to join in with your mates, the adventure of going up to London - all reasons which must have played their part in 1381, just as they did in 1914 and on other occasions when people made individual choices in the midst of group action. This helps understand not only the event itself but can also contribute to wider understanding of motivation and causation – one of those ‘Do you remember when we did …’ moments.

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What do YOU get out of it?

Excitement, a sense of real achievement as a teacher, more students opting for your courses, the delight of getting a great response from students, parents at parents’ evenings and even degree ceremonies saying ‘I wish I’d been taught history like this’, jealous colleagues, the satisfaction of taking a risk that comes off, better results.

To rephrase Terry Pratchett, it’s the most fun you can have in front of 28 (or even 280) other people.

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Analysing the effectiveness of activities

How do you get the very best out of an activity? I’ve discussed in other parts of this section the importance of being very clear in your objectives in terms of both knowledge and understanding of the past and also understanding of the process of doing history. Vague and woolly objectives lead to vague and ineffective outcomes.

But to get the best out of an activity you also need to spend time after the activity has been completed to:

• undertake a thorough exploration with students of what they have learned from an activity and

• do your own thinking about what was achieved and what you might do better next time.

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Debriefing students

This is vital and all too easily rushed through if you’re short of time. To get the best out of an activity the students need to be explicit about what they’ve learned and how their ideas about a person, event or situation have changed. This is a fundamental of effective learning – thinking about what I thought or knew before and asking ‘how has that changed?’ It’s also important for students to reflect upon ‘how have I learned this?’ because unless we understand how we learn most effectively we can’t develop independence as learners.

This is difficult for students of any age but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. This is why it’s almost always important to begin by finding out what students know and think before they do an activity – assuming a blank mind that you can imprint the correct answers onto is all too often a mistake.

So, if you’ve asked the key questions beforehand, debriefing can take the form of ‘how has your thinking changed?’ Whether you have done or not, the following sequence may structure your questioning:

1. Use closed questions which allow students to demonstrate knowledge of people and events or other information gained from the activity. These boost self-esteem as students realize how much they can remember without having written anything down! These questions also reinforce the narrative framework.

2. Ask more challenging, higher-order, open questions which deal with motives, explanation, interpretations, consequences, attitudes etc.

3. Ask students to describe aloud what they were thinking and feeling at different stages of the activity. For example, in Je suis le roi!, students who played English landowners were able to express how their feelings had changed from insecurity to anger during the activity and reflect on how their inability to understand William (who spoke in French) had affected them.

4. The bravest questions of all are the very open ended

• What have you learned today?

• What surprised you about what happened in that activity?

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Your own reflections on an activity

It’s always worthwhile – though hard to fit in - to spend some time thinking how an activity went, especially with a mentor or colleague. You could use the Reflections questions that appear at the end of most activities or cross-refer to Reflections on Active Learning in the Teaching Issues section of the site. There I’ve divided up the overall range of questions into sub-sections:

1. Organization

2. Styles of activity

3. Enjoyment and motivation

4. What did they learn?

5. Building coherence

6. Cross-curricular and general

Of course, you don’t need to think about all these things – not unless you’ve secretly discovered another 12 hours in the day. If you’re pressed for time (and you will be) just write down one thing you’ve learned from teaching an activity and one thing you’ll do better next time you use this activity. Do this within 48 hours of teaching the activity or the good intention of doing so will get overtaken by other things. And make sure you write them down – that gives you a much better chance of remembering them next time.

A last thought - what’s important is to get into the habit of reflecting on your teaching and students’ learning. In the long-run that improves your students’ performances and results and has another immensely valuable benefit – it keeps you feeling young because you keep developing as a teacher. There’s nothing worse than a cynical ‘stuck in a rut’ teacher – they bring everyone down with them.

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And finally but very importantly …

Who are the lessons for?

This might sound an odd point because lessons are very obviously meant to benefit the students but I’ve been told a fair few times by teachers that they can’t use active learning because it’s not their style of teaching, that they don’t feel comfortable with it. That response suggests that the teacher is not prepared to stretch his or her comfort zone in order to meet the learning needs of his or her students. It’s very easy to settle into a style of teaching over the years, perhaps particularly when teaching A level. Many generally successful teachers at A level are generally successful because they develop an excellent relationship with students, lessons pass enjoyably if in an unvarying style and most people get good grades. But the key words in the previous sentence are ‘generally successful’ – what about the students who would benefit from a different approach to learning (the dyslexics for example) and don’t learn most effectively from listening and taking notes? They may well be able to get the As and Bs that other students get – if they are taught in a way that meets their needs rather than in ways that fit into the teacher’s comfort zone. This may sound a harsh criticism of some teaching but I think it’s difficult to argue with the view that the success of students should come before the comfort zone of teachers – in which case it’s the teacher’s comfort zone that needs stretching, gently and carefully at first but it’s amazing what teachers can do and ENJOY when they step outside those comfort zones.

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This Page

Why use Active Learning?

Effective Learning

Enhanced understanding

Do you remember ...

Better written work

More effective reading


What do you get?

Analysing effectiveness

Debriefing students

Your reflections

Who are the lessons for?