We have developed a Prefect Training Program that is guided by research and theories about learning. Much of our training is about putting theory into practice. Here are some theories about learning and some results of research into how people learn deeply through active learning.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (1999), by John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., was written to provide “a deep understanding of complex reasoning and performance on problem-solving tasks and how skill and understanding in key subjects are acquired.”

The entire book is now available online, for free. Given your role as Prefect, you’ll find chapter two, “How Experts Differ from Novices,” particularly valuable. Here’s part of the introduction to the chapter:

Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.

Why We Want You to Promote Active, Collaborative, and Reflective Learning in Your Sessions

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom looked at the questions that commonly occur in educational settings and then categorized them according to their level of abstraction. In your work as a prefect, consider ways you might move students’ understanding of course content from knowledge, which simply requires memorization, to more abstract levels, which can involve solving problems or evaluating which method is best for solving a particular problem.

The cognitive domain involves knowledge and the development of intellectual skills. There are six major categories, which are listed in order, starting from “lower-order” thinking to “higher-order” thinking (i.e., the most complex). The categories can be thought of as degrees of difficulty. That is, the first one must be mastered before the next one can take place.

Bloom's Taxonomy
Bloom’s Taxonomy
Action Verbs in Bloom's Taxonomy
Action Verbs in Bloom’s Taxonomy

Collaborative Learning

Those who stay in science tell of small, student-organized study groups. They meet outside of formal classes. They describe enjoying intense and often personal interaction with a good lab instructor. In contrast, those who switch away from the sciences rarely join a study group. They rarely work together with others. They describe class sections and lab instructors as dry, and above all, impersonal.

–Light, Harvard Assessment Seminars, 1992 (p. 10).

Tell me, and I forget. Show me, and I remember. Involve me, and I understand.

–Chinese Proverb

Key features of cooperative learning are very consistent with the basic tenets of adult learning theory (andragogy), namely: adults learn best through active, experiential techniques involving discussion and problem solving which allows them to draw on their backlog of personal and professional experiences (Knowles, 1984).

–Cuseo, “Cooperative learning,” 1992, p. 2.

(Both quotations are from the Review of Successful Practices in Teaching and Learning)

From Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking: The concept of collaborative learning, the grouping and pairing of students for the purpose of achieving an academic goal, has been widely researched and advocated throughout the professional literature. The term ‘collaborative learning’ refers to an instruction method in which students at various performance levels work together in small groups toward a common goal. The students are responsible for one another’s learning as well as their own. Thus, the success of one student helps other students to be successful.

“Proponents of collaborative learning claim that the active exchange of ideas within small groups not only increases interest among the participants but also promotes critical thinking. According to Johnson and Johnson (1986), there is persuasive evidence that cooperative teams achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who work quietly as individuals. The shared learning gives students an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers (Totten, Sills, Digby, & Russ, 1991).”

Reflective Learning

Reflective learning is an important emphasis in the sciences at Carleton College. The process of reflective learning has some resemblance to Bloom’s taxonomy. It can be described in five stages, with reflection taking place primarily in the last three[1]:

NoticingBeing observant; you cannot learn something if you do not notice it.
Making SenseGetting to know the material as coherent; fitting the facts together like a jigsaw, but not relating the material to other ideas
Making MeaningThe start of relating the new material to other ideas; putting it into context.
Working with MeaningGoing beyond the given; linking of the new material to existing ideas, as a result of which the learner’s overall understanding may start to change.
Transformative LearningThe restructuring of ideas and understanding, and the ability to evaluate the processes that lead to this new learning.

A Few Ways to Promote Active Learning in Your Sessions

In order to achieve the highest retention rates in learners, teaching methods need the learner to work actively with the content materials and new concepts. Below are several strategies that, while written to assist instructors in preparing for the classroom, you might want to integrate into your prefect sessions.

Give Practice Quizzes and Problems

  • A practice quiz is a low-stakes (or no-stakes) way for students to evaluate what they do and do not know. A practice quiz also reduces anxiety and demystifies the test- and quiz-taking situation. Students note in their End-of-Term Surveys that they really appreciate Prefects who give them practice quizzes and problems.

Require Students to Write

  • Research has shown that stopping a lecture after presenting a main concept for three minutes, allows students to write notes, thoughts and reflections, and learner retention rates improve noticeably over a “just lecturing” method.

One-Minute Informal Writing

  • These quickly-produced papers provide an extremely simple way to collect written feedback on student learning. Stop the session and ask students to respond briefly to some variation on the following two questions:
    1. “What was the most important thing you learned during this session?”
    2. “What important question remains unanswered?”
  • Students then write their responses on index cards or half-sheets of scrap paper and hand them in (no names are necessary).
  • The instructor reviews the papers before the next session and clarifies the material as needed.

Think – Pair – Share

  • After you discuss a concept, stop the session and allow students to collect their thoughts, then have them discuss the concept for 3-5 minutes with the person next to them or in trios.
  • Finally, ask/choose pairs to share with everyone else or report to you for questions about the material, etc.


  • Brainstorming is a good technique for generating ideas quickly. Make sure everyone understands the ground rules: no response is wrong, and every response is accepted without discussion or argument.
  • Once brainstorming has elicited a sufficient number of responses, guide students to use their analytical and synthesizing skills to determine best ideas.

Concept Mapping

  • In concept mapping, students create visual representations showing the relationship between concepts. Ask them to draw circles containing concepts and connect them with lines. The lines may have phrases showing the connection between concept circles. Making concept maps can be done in groups or individually, and both inside and outside of the session.
  • The process offers practice with critical thinking skills, such as categorization, and comparing and/or contrasting concept elements. Professor Trish Ferrett (Chemistry) has used this technique and with great success; talk with her for more information.


  • Demonstrations are effective at visually showing and allowing student interactions with various course concepts. Students can be asked to predict an outcome to a given situation and then assess/evaluate/justify if their prediction was valid based upon the demonstration.
  • In other instances, the demonstration serves to allow students to construct meaning and make connections in their learning based upon their observations and first-hand experience.

Case Studies and Real-World Events and Issues

  • You might consider bringing in case studies for students to consider and then analyze, applying concepts, data, and theory taught from class. Students can work individually or in groups or do this as a think-pair-share activity.
  • Using case studies in combination with a brief in-class writing assignment adds to the students actively working with the subject content.


  • Games such as “Jeopardy” can be adapted for course material and used in review and for assignments.

[1] Source: Personal Development Planning, from the Handbook for Economics Lecturers.