Active Learning in Technology-Enhanced Environments: On Sensible and Less Sensible Conceptions of “Active” and Their Instructional Consequences

Alexander Renkl

Usually ITSs or, more generally, technology-enhanced learning environments are designed to afford active learning in order to optimize meaningful knowledge construction. However, researchers in learning and instruction hold different conceptions of “active learning.” Most socio-constructivist approaches have adopted an active responding stance. They regard visible, open learning activities such as solving complex problems, hands-on activities, or argument with peers as necessary for effective learning. This view, however, is challenged by empirical evidence and has theoretical problems. If we assume that learning takes place in the individual learner’s mind, then what the mind does, and not overt behavior, is central. Accordingly, the active processing stance—the typical stance of most cognitively-oriented educational psychologists—regards effective learning as knowledge construction resulting from actively processing to-be-learned content. Although active processing might be necessary for knowledge construction, it can become unfocused. In hypermedia environments, for example, learners may focus on peripheral information, which may delay or even prevent the acquisition of important content. Against this background, I have recently proposed a modification of the active processing stance. The focused processing stance claims that it is crucial that the learners’ active processing is related not only to the learning content but to the central concepts and principles to be learned (e.g., mathematical theorems, physics laws).

The focused processing stance is of special relevance to technology-enhanced learning environments. Many features of these environments that are meant as supportive might actually induce learning-irrelevant additional demands to the learners (e.g., decisions when to use different help facilities), or these features might be sub-optimally used (e.g., overuse of help). Hence, these “supportive” features can distract from the central concepts and principles to be learned. In this talk I will present instructional procedures and findings from three lines of research that are relevant in helping learners focus on central concepts and principles: (a) Replacing problem-solving demands by worked solutions in the beginning of the learning process in order to reduce unproductive problem-solving attempts; (b) informing the learners of the intended function of a learning environment’s “supportive” features in order to optimize their use; (c) prompting by specifically-designed questions in order to focus the learners’ attention on the central principles of the learning domain. The findings confirm that it is crucial not only to induce active learner involvement but also to support focused processing in order to optimize learning outcomes.

The final publication is available at Springer via