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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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The Importance of Engaging in Active Learning

Jasmine Shafagh

Transitioning to the college educational approach is a difficult task for most freshman to grasp, let alone rising juniors and seniors. As a freshman at Bryn Mawr College, I found it difficult to shift my learning style from the high school method to the more active learning approach that is required and necessary in any college. After reflecting upon the forthcoming completion of my first year here, I have realized that although lecture and classroom times have been drastically decreased since high school, I have learned much more in these past few months than during any time of my high school career. To understand the reason for this peculiar happening, I realized that my learning style has shifted to accommodate the college's educational approach; this year, I have become more of an active learner, whereas in high school, I was more passive. Although I was still an active learner in high school, I believe high schools in general foster the passive learning styles (where teachers write out all the notes that will be on tests so students memorize them), whereas college professors teach in a manner that fosters the implementation of active learning on the part of the students (i.e. lectures are only there to supplement the learning and reading you do or research on your own). So I am curious as to what constitutes active learning and how it plays such a significant role in making education more beneficial and valuable than passive learning methods. I would also like to know what the neurobiological basis for this notion is – and if it even has any validity at all. After all, isn't learning something that is quite subjective according to the individual's personal style? And can one particular learning approach bring about more prevalent changes in the brain that cultivate long-term and better learning?

According to many psychiatrists and education specialists, there are about twelve different theories on how people learn. Among those is active learning, also known as brain-based learning, (the concept that the structure and functions of brains are always existent, and what determines how much we learn or what we learn is the extent to which we actively utilize our brains) (1). Although learning is achieved through a general combination of the twelve processes, fairly recent neurobiological studies accredit active learning with being the most effective method of all. The idea behind active learning is that each individual is born with a brain that functions, and as long as it isn't prohibited from working normally, it can learn based on what the individual wants or on how the individual uses it. For active learning to be most effective, individuals must be in an environment that immerges them into the educational realm, the individuals must be relaxed and must eliminate their fears to be challenged, and the individuals must be able to "internalize information by actively processing it," (1). For example, college students must do the reading, writing, discussing and analyzing themselves (instead of professors giving it to them) so that they engage in higher-order thinking tasks, (3).

An important principal behind active learning is that it must involve both an experience (through the act of doing or observing) and a dialogue (either with the self or with others). Let's examine the dialogue component first. To learn, an individual reflectively thinks about any topic, examining what they think of it, what they were taught to think of it or what they should think about it. In this way, the individual not only thinks about what they are being told, but he/she also examines what it is, if he/she agrees or disagrees with it and if he/she wants to question or test it (7). Dialogue with others also helps us learn because we learn what other people's perspectives are and compare theirs with our own to reach a consensus; others might also help us look at something in a completely different way. Furthermore, the experience portion can be done through doing and observing. Doing is important because an individual gets direct contact and experience with something. Observing is equally as essential because the individual sees a direct action through the hands of someone else (possibly someone experienced who can teach the individual something new!) (4). As Henry David Thoreau once said, "Experiences themselves are educative only if the students actively clarify, internalize, and reflect on them," (2). In addition, research shows that just after two weeks, individuals remember 90 % of what they did, what experiences they had, the discussions they had, and the things they said (all active experiences!) However, they only remember about 20% of what they heard (on television, for example), 10 % of what they read, and 30 % of pictures they saw (all passive exercises) (5). Thus, the actions that condone active learning, such as experiencing something and engaging in dialogues, help us retain more information and become better learners.

So what is the neurobiological basis for the notion that an active learning approach is actually better than a passive one? To understand this, we must first comprehend how learning affects the human brain and its structures. There is an important region of the brain called the neocortex, which contains a full set of nerve cells that were developed at an individual's birth. The dendrites, the receptive branches and extensions of the nerve cells, are responsible for a majority of the postneocortical growth. The significance of the dendrites in the neocortex is that their neural networks are the basis of human intelligence. Dendrites receive and process inputs from other nerves, and based on what that input is, they either create new neural networks or follow the path of pre-existing ones to carry out the output. According to research, these dendrites increase with use and decrease with disuse (9). So, to understand what this means in the larger scheme of things, we must employ the common cliché: "use it or lose it," (referring to the human brain). Because there is no limit to the human's capacities to learn more, neurons are continuing to make new connections on a day to day basis throughout our lifetime (7). So, if we are learning passively, the dendrites won't create enough neural networks for enhanced learning. Active learning (or the continual use of the brain in experimentation and dialogues) on the other hand, is essential because our brains will create new neural networks that override pre-existing ones to help us make more connections, become more intelligent, and process more information (9).

Researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute have also undergone experiments to understand how different learning experiences rewire the brain. They have developed a new microscopy method that lets them see how the brains of active mice are rewired as they learn to adapt to different experiences. According to their studies, rewiring the brain (through the dendrites' activities) involves the creation and elimination of synapses (the connections between the neurons). Researchers at Hughes wanted to know whether learning could cultivate the restructuring of brain and neural circuitry. To do this, they used transgenic mice that were created to produce a green fluorescent protein inside the neurons of a specific part of the brain that processed the tactile sensory inputs from their whiskers. Scientists made a two-photon laser scanning microscope (with infrared lasers) to excite the green protein in the neurons through a small glass window put in the mouse's skull. Over time, researchers were able to conclude that through the active learning process, dendrites were constantly created and destroyed on a day to day basis. What's rather interesting is that these scientists changed the traditional view that the formation of synapses ceases as we get older; because of the stable density of these neural networks and synapses, we used to believe there were no new synapses created. However, "the stable density only indicated a balanced rate of birth and death of new synapses," (8). On any particular day, about twenty percent of the networks rearranged themselves in the brain. Researchers were also intrigued by the fact that certain axons and spines persisted for months while others consistently changed.

Hughes researchers also wanted to see how the mice would respond to different types of experiences (some active, some passive). They decided to cut off the mice's whiskers to see how they would respond to external stimuli. Researchers concluded that the mice employed new learning techniques to generate tactile stimulus, and as a result, new synapses were created and destroyed on a daily basis. "This finding indicates that there's a pronounced rewiring of the synaptic circuitry with the formation of new synapses and the elimination of other synapses," (8). However, while these researchers only experimented with tactile sensory changes, there was no evidence that other stimulations, such as visual ones, would create the same amount of neural turnover. In an article published in Nature magazine, researchers from New York School of Medicine found that there was almost no increase in the synaptic cell production in the visual cortex of the mice. According to Karel Svoboda, a researcher at Hughes, the result of these findings may be that the brain responds to different inputs in different ways. This theory supports the argument that active learning is more beneficial than passive learning; the active learning employed in mice through new sensory and tactile experiences created new synapses, while the passive visual experiences in the mice did not. Svoboda and other researchers conclude that certain neural connections are more favorable and are brought about by different types of experiences (8). Thus, from a neurobiological approach, active learning does seem to be more beneficial for enhanced learning.

In conclusion, based on neurobiological understandings and much research, it is evident that active learning has a more beneficial effect than passive learning on individuals because it creates new neural networks and synapses. Although learning is something that is quite subjective and comes from many different methods and external stimuli, it is proven that employing active learning with any particular style or method can increase brain power and intelligence. Active learning brings about many prevalent changes in the brain (such as new neural networks and synapses) that cultivate more and better learning!

The results of this research have helped me make more connections with the lecture material presented in class. Before taking this class, I did not fully grasp the input/output processing of signals in neural networking. I was always curious as to why certain individuals seemed to process things better, or how individuals are able to learn in general. I also wondered if individuals were able to change their brain wiring to consolidate for certain losses. Now I understand how these rewiring networks work, and the power and capability we have to use our brains in the more effective and active manners to be better learners. As professor Grobstein once said in a lecture about learning: "Have experiences, think about them, make up your own stories about them and test those stories" in order to be active learners (6). Indeed, the more we experience and actively think and reflect upon those experiences, the more we will learn and get out of our college and life experiences!


1)Funderstanding Website, information about different types of learning.

2) Bickman, Martin. Minding American Education: Reclaiming The Tradition of Active Learning. New York: Teacher's College Press, 2003.

3) National Teaching and Learning Forum , information about active learning.

4) Honolulu Community College Intranet , information about active learning.

5) Online Effective Teaching Workshop , information about active learning.

6)Serendip Website, information on becoming a better learner.

7) New Horizons for Learning - Online Journal , information about mind and Brain Learning Principles.

8) New Horizons for Learning - Online Journal , information on rewiring the brain.

9) New Horizons for Learning - Online Journal , information about the brain: use it or lose it.

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