An exploration of the concept and practice of active learning in higher education

Watters, Natalie (2014) An exploration of the concept and practice of active learning in higher education. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Full text available as:
[thumbnail of 2014WattersPhd.pdf] PDF
Download (2MB)
Printed Thesis Information:


There has been much written about active learning in higher education over the last few decades however, there is a lack of a cohesive definition or any critique of this term. Active learning is often associated with learning and teaching which is progressive and involves student participation. As the demographic of students in higher education continues to change, learning and teaching needs to adapt, therefore it is important to explore what teachers and students mean when they use the term active learning. The main aim of this research project was to investigate active learning in the context of higher education. This research includes an exploration of whether there is a relationship between active learning and good teaching as well as investigating if the understanding and practice of active learning is influenced by teachers’ and students’ beliefs about the purpose of university education. In this research, active learning is considered predominantly from a UK perspective, and alongside this I also provide some small international examples of perspectives on active learning. Finally, drawing on the literature and findings of this project, this research offers two new conceptualisations of active learning in higher education.
One main research question guided this project: what is active learning in the context of higher education? There were two sub questions: is there a relationship between good teaching and active learning and how do students’ and teachers’ beliefs about the purpose of a university education influence the practice of active learning? Employing case study methodology, data for this research project was collected at the University of Glasgow, UK. A small amount of data was also collected using opportunistic sampling in three international settings: An-Najah National University, Nablus, occupied Palestinian territories; Hawler Medical University, Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq; and University of Cape Coast, Ghana. In total there were 13 Interviews with teaching staff, 3 focus groups with students and 14 observations of teaching. Data was collected across a range of disciplines and included postgraduate, undergraduate and adult education.
The main findings in this research were: (i) active learning in higher education continues to be a messy, complex and an inconsistently defined term; (ii) active learning can be more than just physical activity, it can be a set of beliefs and attitudes towards learning itself; (iii) national culture and context are not significantly influential in the practice and understanding of active learning, many themes in this research were trans-contextual; (iv) active learning can happen when teachers give students a framework from which they can build, shape and direct their own learning.
This research offers two new conceptualisations of active learning; the first relates to how teachers promote active learning, the second relates to how active learning is understood and practised by students. These new conceptualisations challenge previous research in active learning which has tended to be over-simplified and under-critiqued. The main recommendations of this research are: (i) that teachers and students must continue to have dialogue about active learning, what it means, what it looks like and its perceived benefits, (ii) that teachers should be aware that they can promote active learning in different ways, (iii) Teachers should adopt teaching strategies which help promote a deep approach to active learning and students should be willing to be reflective and take responsibility for their learning.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Active learning, teaching and learning in higher education
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Education > Social Justice Place and Lifelong Education
Supervisor's Name: Kane, Dr. Liam and Bovill, Dr. Catherine
Date of Award: 2014
Depositing User: Dr Natalie Watters
Unique ID: glathesis:2014-5450
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 21 Aug 2014 08:24
Last Modified: 02 Sep 2016 08:41

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


Downloads per month over past year