Learning Models: Enabling Research-Based Approaches to Active Learning

Jeff Bergin, Ph.D., Vice President, Learning Research and Design

August 27th, 2018

At Macmillan Learning, we try to help instructors achieve better outcomes by developing products that facilitate research-based pedagogies, and to help students by designing engaging, empathetic, and effective learning experiences. While we employ a number of research methods as we develop an edtech solution, we start with learning research - published findings from educational research and cognitive science. We survey, document, and distill this research into Learning Science Foundations that are reviewed by our Learning Research Advisory Council and Student Co-Designers, and then used during product design and refinement.

One of our Key Principles for Learning Experience Design is that an effective learning experience needs to be built on a well-constructed learning model. A learning model is a set of instructional and assessment activities and deliberately organized for greatest effect (Cabral & Nunes, 2015). Today, I'm pleased to share with you the latest set of Learning Science Foundations that we're using to design our next-generation learning solutions - a series of learning models: Active Learning, Problem-Based Learning, and Project-Based Learning.

Why the Focus on Active Learning?
These models are rooted in active learning pedagogy, which is derived from the constructivist theory of learning. A fundamental tenet of constructivism is that learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner. Active learning encourages students to engage in complex activities that require them to reflect upon ideas and think about how they're using those ideas. It requires them to attain knowledge by participating and involves them in gathering information, thinking, and problem solving (Michael, 2006).

While very similar due to their underlying focus on active learning, the models differ slightly in their approaches to specific types of coursework, such as solving problems or developing projects. This differentiation recognizes and supports different instructional approaches common in different disciplines and courses. Within each model, there are components provided to address learner cognitive and noncognitive needs. Each model is organized in such a way to provide components that can be leveraged at pivotal time points: beginning of term/throughout, before class, during class, after class, and end-of-unit that repeat over the course of a learning experience. All of the models are flexible in terms of the nature of activities that can fulfill the pedagogical purpose or goal of each component and were developed to be used as an evidence-based guide, rather than a prescriptive, comprehensive set of directives.

Who are These Models for and How Are They Used?
We have devised these models for three purposes: to advocate for research-based pedagogy; to advance research-based learning experience design; and to advance educational research.

Advocating for Research-Based Pedagogy"Many instructors want, and try, to make research-based pedagogical decisions," notes Erin Scully, Manager of Learning Research at Macmillan, "however, few have the time or resources to conduct a thorough review of learning sciences literature, distill this into an actionable model, solicit feedback from experts, and then refine the model based on its effectiveness - it's a very considerable task." Indeed, we have done this so that instructors don't have to; they can leverage these learning models for their own teaching. We encourage instructors to ideate around the various nodes on the learning models to creatively develop teaching methods that are rooted in active learning.

Enabling Research-Based Learning Experience Design

Our Product Management and User Experience teams take a similar approach. They work with groups of instructors and students to ideate around various nodes in the learning model; design features and functionality to support each; and then carefully test and refine these with instructors and students visiting our Learning Lab and on campus with Macmillan's Impact Research team. "By testing against various learning model elements," said Dr. Kara McWilliams, Vice President of Impact Research at Macmillan, "we can see which are most effective and which can be further optimized." As such, these learning models are a foundational ingredient of Macmillan's next generation of products.

Advancing Educational Research
In addition to supporting instructors and students, we are publishing these learning models publicly so that they might be constructively critiqued and evolved by the larger educational research community. "By sharing these models, Macmillan is contributing to an important dialog about 'what works' and enabling further research into active learning methods," notes Dr. Becca Runyon, Manager of Learning Research at Macmillan.

Dr. Sara Finney, Professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology and Associate Director of the Center for Assessment and Research Studies at James Madison University, recently posted the models on her website for instructors and instructional designers to reference, remarking "These could serve as a major support for faculty and staff as they work to improve their educational programs."

We are publishing these learning models under the Creative Commons license to encourage educators, researchers, and edtech developers to use, share, and evolve these. Indeed, members of our Student Codesign Group were excited to see these models because it helped them, for the first time, to understand the reasoning behind certain pedagogical choices that they have seen their instructors make. In the words of Anthony Nguyen, Senior at CUNY Hunter College, "I realized the pivotal importance of students' ability to self-regulate and create learning goals for themselves. Also, how active learning (especially group interactions) can be hit or miss and need to be intentionally designed in order to have a good shot at being effective."

We invite you to review these three learning models and consider how they may help with your teaching or learning design. We would love to hear more about your efforts on that journey. If you are interested in providing feedback, collaborating on a research study, or advancing these Foundations in any way, please reach out to me at jeff.bergin@macmillan.com.


Cabral, J. & Nunes J. (2015). The Flipped-Broadcast Learning System, Application on Azores. European Scientific Journal. Retrieved from https://eujournal.org/index.php/esj/article/view/6170/5955

Michael, J. (2006). Where's the evidence that active learning works?. Advances in physiology education, 30(4), 159-167.

Michael, J., & Modell, H. I. (2003). Active learning in secondary and college science classrooms: A working model for helping the learner to learn. Routledge.

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