The Association for Science Education

P4.2 Active Learning


Learning is something that can only be done by an individual - it is an active process and can only be effective and long-term if the material being learned is meaningful and personally significant to the learner. This article provides an insight into a constructivist approach to learning and teaching (the teacher is a very important facilitator of the learning process). Indeed it relates closely to the previous article P4.1 on pupils' alternative conceptions of science. A framework of learning through talking and doing, through reading and through writing is provided together with suggestions for assignment activities for trainee teachers that could be adapted for use in particular contexts. In addition athere is a brief introduction to learning theory including the work of Ausubel abd Bruner. A variety of downloads and references is provided to facilitate more detailed follow-up.

Standards that are particularly relevant to this section include Q4, Q7&8, Q10, Q14, Q18&19, Q22, Q25-29.

Keywords: Active, Meaningful, Learning, Constructivism, Teaching.


1.0 Introduction
2.0 A constructivist approach to learning
3.0 Learning through talking and doing
4.0 Learning through reading
5.0 Learning through writing
6.0 Suggestions for assignment activities for student teachers

This section is based on Part II (esp Chapters 6-10 How Children make sense of their world) of Ross, K., Lakin, E. and McKechnie, J. (2010) Teaching Secondary Science. (Third edition) London: Routledge (ISBN 10: 0-415-46886-8) price (£21.99) with permission from the publishers.

1.0 Introduction

There is clear evidence that children develop frameworks of belief about natural phenomena that often conflict with our accepted scientific understanding, and, just as scientists’ own understandings have undergone revolutions over historical time, so children’s ideas will also change. In this unit we first compare the way children learn about their environment, often developing a naïve understanding, with the way scientists develop concepts. If children retain some of their naïve notions in science despite our ‘best endeavours’ to teach, what can be done? The main message of this unit is to introduce techniques of active learning, where learners are given time to restructure their thinking to accommodate the new ideas we think we have so successfully taught. Far from being a luxury, the time we give children to make sense of what we have taught is essential. If pupils don’t re-formulate their thoughts to accommodate new ideas, they will forget everything very soon after their exams (and even before!), and they will have no scientific understanding to help them understand the world they live in. We have a big job, as tutors, to encourage trainee teachers to give their pupils time the make sense of their lessons. The final section below suggests assignments (one primary and one secondary) that can be given to trainees to encourage this active learning approach.

We must be careful to remember that ‘we’ (i.e. the teachers and trainees) also have misconceptions, and although we need to have ‘good subject knowledge’ as is stated in Download 2.0a we all have more or less learning to do to reach a level of understanding that might be termed scientific - our current best ‘guess’ (idea, theory …) of how the universe works. The most important thing is that all our knowledge and understanding is up for critical review - all ideas must be tested against evidence; so although students usually learn from their teachers it is valuable for the reverse to occur too. Ideally pupils and teachers can learn together.  If we want students to be active learners, then we, as teachers, must be active learners too.

2.0 A constructivist approach to learning

Download 2.0a is a summary of Ausubel’s and Bruner’s theories of learning. The emphasis is on the need to give learners time to make sense of new ideas, and build them into their own understanding. If their previous ideas conflict with the scientific ideas we are teaching, both the pupils and ourselves need to be aware of this. Download 2.0b provides an example of how we might structure a lesson to address the idea that many pupils have that the wax of a candle is there to slow the burning, rather than as the fuel. The PowerPoint (download 2.0c) is a short piece to contrast different approaches to learning, stressing the need to give the learners time to make theirown sense of everything.

We need to help our trainee teachers recognise two important stages in their lessons:

  • Inspired by the creativity of great scientists we need to present their revolutionary ideas to our pupils, often challenging the pupils’ naïve ideas as we do so. We have almost always done that – it is called teaching. It takes many forms, including practical work, videos and demonstration/explanations. Without this intervention pupils can remain trapped in the naïve cycle of everyday thinking.
  • But we also have to give the pupils the chance to re-interpret or reformulate these ideas to make them their own. This stage in the teaching–learning cycle we neglect at our peril. How we introduce this to our trainees is covered in the following three sections.

We also need to explore what happens to a (trainee) teacher’s own personal and pedagogic science knowledge and understandings as they prepare, teach and interact with their students. When you are able to explain an idea to someone else you have understood it yourself!

A key issue for all learning techniques is for the teacher to encourage / promote / legitimate the students’ personal interests / motivations to engage intellectually with the scientific ideas under discussion. This is an aspiration far from easy to achieve - but when students are so motivated they will learn in spite of the teaching you may do - and will actively ‘talk’ to each other and their parents etc. even beyond the lesson. They will also actively pursue other sources of information. We hope this is what happens at undergraduate level, and even in years 12 and 13, but it begins much earlier. What follows will help trainees help their pupils towards this goal.

Download P4.2_2.0a 'Learning with meaning'
Download P4.2_2.0b 'Sample lesson on a candle'
Download P4.2_2.0c 'Learning with Meaning'

3.0 Learning through talking and doing

Only recently, and only in certain countries, is there anything like universal literacy, yet almost everyone can use the spoken language. This section examines the role of talking and listening (by teacher and pupils) in the science classroom, especially in relation to the opportunity it gives pupils to reformulate ideas to make them meaningful. We also examine the place of role-play and other doing activities when they are expressly concerned with allowing pupils to make sense of the ideas they are being taught. Periods of silence, though useful and welcome at the right time, are less common in the science classroom than talk. The aim of this section is to ensure that this talk is productive. It also makes the point that if we do want children to write then we need to give them the chance to talk things through first.

As a tutor working with student teachers I model many of these techniques with them as we work through them. For example after explaining the value of “Tell-each-other” over the normal “Hands up” I then say to the group (of 20 or 120) tell each other why “Tell-each-other” is so powerful. After 15 or 20 seconds I collect their ideas, and compare them with my list. In this way they have taken ownership of the technique. When they have had a chance to try it out in school (see Download 3.0a) I ask for volunteers to evaluate how successful they have found it.  

Active talking
The Download 3.0b contains more ideas to get pupils talking about what they do and understand.
We have argued that talk should be the first medium in which we ask our pupils to express their newly acquired knowledge. The secret is to provide a clear structure which enables reformulation to take place. This in turn enables ideas to be embedded, allowing little time to chat idly. It is important to get them to speak from their own understanding (ex-tempore), rather than reading from a script.

Active talk at home
A new book "Science Homework for Key Stage 2" (Forster et al. 2009) contains a selection of ‘pencil-free', hands-on activities, aligned with the National Curriculum Programmes of Study and with clear links to the topics set out in the QCA scheme of work for KS2 science, that teachers can use as extension activities or give to pupils as homework to do with members of their family or friends. Each of the activities encourages the pupils to learn through discussion and through practical activities utilising everyday resources. The ideas could be adapted for KS3.

Download P4.2_3.0a 'Tell-each-other'
Download P4.2_3.0b 'Activities for Talk'

4.0 Learning through reading

Scientific texts are not the same as the narrative of novels which can be read cover to cover as the story unfolds. With our texts we need to get the pupils to pause and reflect on what they are reading - to try to make their sense of it. We need to transform reading in science lessons from a purely information receiving process (intervention) into one in which learners can make their own sense or meaning as they read (reformulation). 

The aim of active learning techniques is to allow the pupils to translate ideas they receive (through watching, listening reading etc) into ideas that they own, ideas that are theirs, and which they can use. We need to avoid the situation where pupils can read texts and answer questions without real understanding. (See the section on Markobine Gando in download "4.0a Reading Activities"

Reading is a powerful tool, providing rapid communication, but texts can be too demanding for pupils, and making meaning from them without help is a task we sometimes do not even trust Year 12 & 13 students to do. In download 4 are examples of how we can break up the reading we ask pupils to do, and allow them time, through structured activities, to make sense of what they read. We can use these techniques with our own teachers in training to model good practice.

Download P4.2_4.0a 'Reading activities'

5.0 Learning through writing

We ask pupils to do writing in most science lessons, even at Primary level, but is this necessary or even useful? There is a tension between getting a neat and accurate set of notes ‘for revision’ and giving pupils more freedom, with the major headache for teachers - it will be full of mistakes, it will take a long time to mark and they won’t have an accurate set of notes. 
The download takes a candid look at the writing we ask pupils to do, and argues that:

  • their note book has much more value as a drafting book than a text book;
  • writing should be used to make meaning for the pupils rather than to be faultless finished notes;
  • we should never ask pupils to write anything down until they are able to talk about it with meaning. At primary level writing should be transferred to the literacy time, allowing pupils to make sense of their experiences and investigation through talk.

Download P4.2_5.0a 'Writing activities'

6.0 Suggestions for assignment activities for student teachers

It is easy to get students to identify the input activities they are going to cover in a lesson, but making time for pupils to make sense of what they have seen, heard, experienced or done is more difficult. Talk is the key factor, and the use of talk-partners is a must. “Whisper to you partner … what you think has happened … why you think this happened … what you think will happen … why this was a good answer …” is helpful at all ages, from pre-school to year 13 and above, though “whisper” might become “talk quietly” for older learners. Drama activities and oral presentations have the same effect, though each pupil must have a turn, which is where the talk-partner ( or response-partner) idea is so powerful.

Once pupils have talked it through they might be ready to make a more permanent record. Reading accounts that they can annotate or re-organise (DARTs) and then stick into their recording books comes next. Finally some pupils will be able to make a record in writing or drawing – not copying, but their own creative account.

To encourage student teachers to include these reformulation activities into their lessons it is helpful to include an active learning assignment as part of the course requirements.

Secondary: Download 6.0a is an assignment used for a secondary PGCE course. This is the second main assignment given during the second term’s teaching, on the GITEP (Gloucestershire Initial Teacher Education Partnership) PGCE secondary course based at the University of Gloucestershire School of Education, Cheltenham allowing student teachers to evaluate their use of active learning techniques in their teaching of science. 

Primary: Download 6.0b is the science assignment used for a primary PGCE and BEd course at the University of Gloucestershire School of Education, Cheltenham allowing student teachers to evaluate the way they have encouraged children to understand the science they have been taught. The assignment comes early in their course where they undertake some micro-teaching to model a constructivist approach to teaching science with a small group of pupils where they should have no discipline problems to worry about, and where they can listen carefully to the pupil talk.

Note: Both assignments (downloads 6.1 & 6.2) contain ready-prepared tutor comments which are numbered. These are distributed with the assignment details and alert the trainee to ideas that they should consider whilst working on the assignment. These ‘comment banks’ build up over the years and can be used to provide detailed feedback comments from the tutor. New comments can be added as and when necessary. Clearly, to be of use to you and your students, they will need careful modification to fit your partnership context.

Download P4.2_6.0a 'Active learning assignment (secondary)'
Download P4.2_6.0b 'Learning in Science assignment (Primary)' 


Forster, C., Parfitt, V., McGowan A. and Brookes D., Science Homework for Key Stage 2 (2009) Abington: David Fulton

Section Developed by:

Keith Ross, University of Gloucestershire with support from Alan Goodwin

Published: 23 Oct 2005, Last Updated: 24 Sep 2008