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Michael Absolum: What is an active learner?

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Michael Absolum outlines the attributes of an active learner, and shares a story about a particular learning experience of his own.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

Active learners see assessment as a tool to help them set goals. They actively seek feedback from a variety of sources, and readily give feedback to others.

  • How do you support students in your class to self assess, and gather feedback from their peers, teachers, and others?
  • How do you support students to understand how to interpret the various forms of feedback and identify their next steps?
  • What do you do when a student's self assessment differs from the teacher's assessment?

Michael shares a story about a time when he responded as a passive learner might. Can you think of a recent learning situation you have been involved in? How did you respond as a learner?

  • What indicators were there to identify your learning to learn strategies?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • What learning to learn opportunities could you set up for yourself at school to extend yourself as a learner?
  • How could you share your learning to learn journey with your students?


So active learners want feedback and they want feedback when they need it for their learning. The co-construction of that learning activity when and how they would get feedback from the teacher or from their peers or from some other resource.

So one of the other things that happens with a self regulating student, an active learner, is that they feel very comfortable about giving feedback to the teacher about the quality of teaching.  They feel very comfortable with the idea that the teacher will be interested in listening to that feedback. And it won’t be given in the spirit of criticism it will given in the spirit of critique around what could help me, as the learner, learn better. Because I’m sure as teacher you’re interested in knowing that. So it’s a sense of ‘we’re in this together’ and that it’s a partnership of our people in the class, and therefore I’m interested in feedback and I expect you to be interested in feedback. 

I think one of the most important ways of getting a sense of how different a self-regulating learner is from the sort of learner that I was - probably the sort of learner that you were - is that the term ‘assessment for learning’ strikes them as being silly. It’s a no brainer. Why else would you assess if it wasn’t for learning? But we know that assessment for learning was seen as a revolution when Black and Wiliam produced their ‘Inside the Black Box’ booklet. But a student, self-regulating student, will say of course, the more assessment the better, because then I really know where I am with my learning. So a self-regulating student does self-assess. Part of our responsibility as teachers is to ensure that we provide them with the tools to allow them to do that.

But if they only ever self-assess then there’s a good chance they’re not really self-regulating. Because you want them to test the dependability of their own self-assessment. You want them to see if the views of peers and of the teachers, see that our views about where they were, what progress they’re making, correspond with their own. They’d be looking for opportunity to test whether there’s a gap between their perception of what they knew and our perception of what they knew. 

So there’s a big challenge here for us,I think, as teachers and educators. In that we need to really understand what being a self-regulating active learner is, we need to become one ourselves. 

A few years ago I took up golf. In order to do that I needed to get golf lessons because that’s what you do. So I took all my skills and years of success of primary, secondary, and tertiary learning to bear to my first golf lesson. And I had a successful half hour lesson where I said many times that I understood what the coach was telling me to do and at the end of it I thanked the coach and went away and tried to play golf. And it was that ensuing week that I realised that I had done what I’d always done and that was, said, “Yes” when the coach said, “Do you understand, do you follow me?” Even though I didn’t have a clue what he was meaning. I just said “yes” and afterwards tried to figure it out myself.  Golf is a very punishing game in that you actually do know how to do it, or you don’t. The evidence in terms of where the ball goes is very powerful feedback about what you’ve understood.

So I learnt at that time, that saying “yes” when you don’t understand is what a passive learner does and as far as I could tell most of my peers did as they were struggling with school, and with university, and that to be active required quite a different set of behaviours on my part. 

So most of us have learnt to be far more passive than the active picture I painted before. We don’t really know how to be active learners who generally drive the pace of learning, who expect to co-construct the learning activities and with our peers. So the real challenge for us is to set up  
some opportunities where we can learn to learn. And we have to do that in ways that parallel the opportunities that we really want to set up for our students to learn to learn.

All schools do have appraisal systems. All schools do have systems where teachers observe teachers. School leaders observe teachers. We can use those opportunities to give us feedback about how receptive we are being to our students, the extent to which we are seeking feedback from our students, the extent to which we are actively trying to learn about our students’ experience of learning. The more we practice that, the more we get feedback ourselves from our coaches, from our mentors, from our appraisers - the more likely we are to be able to move ourselves into being much more active in our learning.  

Published on: 08 Aug 2012