Active Learning: What, Why and How

Active Learning

Benjamin Franklin said knowingly, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” His words have resounding truth in recent studies showing that hands-on learning is the most effective form of education.

University of Texas at Austin[1] theorizes that “active learning” has a myriad of positive benefits. These include:

  • Encouraging students to find personally meaningful problem solutions
  • Increasing students’ self-confidence and self-reliance
  • Providing more motivation than other alternatives
  • Allowing their conceptions of knowledge to change
  • Promoting greater cognitive development
  • Expanding learning strategies
  • Helping students to learn and work with others from different backgrounds.

In addition, active learning promotes long-term retention[2], which means that even one-time exposures to an active learning activity has a long-term impact on education.

In response to the importance of active learning and its absence in standardized-focused curriculums, parents and educators are experimenting with better ways to engage children. For example, some homeschooling and “Deschooling” approaches encourage children to learn through self-chosen topics. Other proponents of alternative education advocate for mixed-age classrooms or “Hub” schools to increase active learning. While these are all creative approaches to strengthen education, they represent major restructuring of the mainstream education system. By contrast, outdoor education is an active learning approach that can be easily integrated into existing infrastructures.

Outdoor education allows students to create a relationship with the natural environment while using the outdoor classroom as a learning tool.

The health community has long been endorsing the benefits of being outdoors to ease depression[3], improve outlook[4], improve focus[5] and even strengthen immunity[6]. Though technology can be a powerful and democratizing learning tool, students of all ages can still find no substitute for outdoor recreation in even the best-designed app (at least, not yet!). Outdoor exposure is so important to developing minds that Pediatricians have resulted to prescribing children outdoor play[7]. “If you get outdoors, you’re more likely to be active,” says Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician and researcher with the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “For young children, exercise and play is interrelated. Being outdoors is more conducive to both”.[8]

Environmental enthusiasts also endorse the benefits of outdoor education. They believe a sub-goal of outdoor education can develop students into environmentally knowledgeable and, above all, skilled and dedicated citizens who are willing to work, individually and collectively, toward achieving and maintaining a dynamic equilibrium between quality of life and quality of the environment[9]. When kids don’t spend time outdoors they lose interconnectedness with the earth and the other species that inhabit this planet.

Outdoor education is, therefore, not only a great approach to active learning, but also to child health and environmental awareness.

Though an important tool, outdoor education should be understood as a supplement to standardized curriculum of the classroom and not a replacement for it. For example, studies show that students in environmental education classes have higher scores in standard measures of reading, writing, math, science, and social studies[10]. A recent study examined over 400 high school students in eleven Florida high schools and contrasted students’ critical thinking skills in environmental education programs and traditional classes. The environmental education classes significantly raised students’ scores on two nationally recognized critical thinking skills tests[11]. Teachers concluded that students’ critical thinking skills improved because the environmental programs involved interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches, had empowered students by allowing them to choose their projects, and allowed students to connect their projects to their communities. Other documented benefits of outdoor education include higher GPA, motivation, attendance[12], and self-esteem[13]. Environmental education is even helping to close testing-score gaps in underserved communities[14].

Sierra Nevada Journey’s education model, aimed at engaging students in active learning, promotes the research based understanding that hands-on education is the best way to achieve long-term retention and increase test scores. Through this approach, students develop critical thinking skills, higher self-confidence, greater mental and physical health, and environmental stewardship.

How do you promote active learning with your children or students? Discuss in the comments below!

  2. Menekse, M., Stump, G. S., Krause, S., & Chi, M. T. H. (2013). Beyond hands-on. ASEE Prism, 23(3), 39. Retrieved from
  9. Hungerford, Peyton, and Wilke (1980)
  10. Coyle, Kevin. (2005). “Environmental Literacy in America: What Ten Years of NEEF/Roper Research and Related Studies Say about Environmental Literacy in the U.S.,” National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, (accessed on Feb. 5, 2015).
  11. Athman, J. & Monroe, M. (2004). “The Effects of Environmentbased Education on Students’Achievement Motivation,” Journal of Interpretation Research, 9(1): 9-25.; Ernst, Julie Athman & Monroe, Martha. (2004). The effect of environment-based education on student’ critical thinking skills and disposition toward critical thinking. Environmental Education Research, 10(4): 507-522.
  12. Bartosh, O. (2004). “Environmental Education: Improving Student Achievement.” Unpublished master’s thesis, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington, 007EA7AB.5/EEReportCard%202004.pdf (accessed Feb. 5, 2015)
  13. American Institutes of Research. (2005). Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California. Sacramento, nalreport.pdf (accessed Feb. 5, 2015).
  14. Emekauwa, E. (2004). They Remember What They Touch: The Impact of Place-based Learning in East Feliciana parish. Rural School and Community Trust, (accessed Feb. 5, 2015)