Active Learning: What Does the Research Show?

We often hear about new approaches in teaching, and some can take on near-mythical status. That might be the case for active learning. It’s been widely touted as the “most effective” pedagogical approach, but unless you have time to dig through the research, it may not be easy to determine if this trend is applicable – or beneficial – to your teaching and discipline.

So what does the research say about active learning? This article provides a brief summary of research results for active learning applied in STEM subjects.

Why Use Active Learning?

Before we discuss why active learning is beneficial, let’s clarify exactly what active learning is. As opposed to passive learning, such as listening to a traditional lecture, active learning requires students to do something and think about what they are doing (Bonwell & Eison, 1991).

Much research supports the power and benefits of active learning. Students have better retention and understanding when they are actively involved in the learning process (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Active engagement promotes higher order thinking, since it often requires students to evaluate, synthesize, and analyze information. Research indicates that students develop strong connections, apply concepts to authentic scenarios, and dive deeply into the content, often discovering an unexpected level of engagement that is exciting and stimulating (Nelson, 2002).

Does Active Learning Produce Better Outcomes in STEM?

Research indicates the answer is “yes!” In an introductory physics course, Harvard professor Eric Mazur (2009) found that his students were not able to answer fundamental physics scenarios or grasp basic concepts from traditional lectures. As a result, he stopped lecturing and has become an outspoken champion for active learning.

An organic chemistry class adopted active learning, resulting in significantly higher grades for students in the active classroom than in the control group, with the greatest effect coming from low-achieving students (Cormier and Voisard, 2018). In an introductory undergraduate physics course, two large student groups were compared. The active learning section showed greater attendance, more engagement, and more than double the achievement on an exam (Deslauriers, Schelew and Weiman, 2011).

In 2004, a skeptical Michael Prince (2004) researched the then-current literature on active learning to determine whether it offered consideration for engineering. He found that many active learning recommendations directly conflicted with historical engineering teaching practices. Methods like breaking lectures into small, topic-specific segments, interspersing lecture with discussion, using problem-based scenarios, or grouping students for collaborative learning were uncommon. Ultimately, Prince reluctantly concluded that the bulk of research evidence indicated that these types of teaching methods might foster better retention and enhance critical thinking.

What About Non-STEM Classes?

Although these findings are from research in STEM disciplines, active learning contributes to better grades, more engagement, increased student satisfaction and better retention in any topic (Allen-Ramdial & Campbell, 2014). Active learning tends to increase involvement for all students, not just those already motivated to learn. Peer-to-peer collaboration helps students solve problems and better understand more complex content (Vaughan et al., 2014). Research indicates that students learn more when they actively participate in their education and are asked to think about and apply their learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Try It Yourself!

The articles cited in this post offer a number of easy-to-implement active learning suggestions that are effective in ether a face-to-face or online classroom. Give one or two a try and see if your students are more engaged in the learning  process.

  • Offer opportunities for students to practice and examine concepts with peers, such as through debates.
  • Break lectures into small, granular topics and intersperse with questions or problem-solving activities based on real-world applications. Video technologies can easily accommodate this approach for online learning.
  • Structure quizzes or other activities to give immediate feedback. Answer keys and auto-graded assessments are available as a feature in virtually any learning management system.
  • Consider “flipping” the classroom by asking students to read or watch lecture videos before in-person class sessions.
  • Design activities that encourage students to work in small groups or collaborate with others.
  • Add a personal reflection component to help students uncover new ideas or insights.

Although no single definitive study has yet been published to unequivocally prove the efficacy of active learning, the body of evidence from many studies forms a compelling argument that it is does offer significant benefits (Weimer, 2012). Give it a try and see how active learning works in your discipline.

Susan Fein, Ecampus Instructional Designer |


  • Allen-Ramdial, S.-A. A., & Campbell, A. G. (2014, July). Reimagining the Pipeline: Advancing STEM Diversity, Persistence, and Success. BioScience, 64(7), 612-618.
  • Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active Learning; Creating Excitement in the Classroom (Vol. Education Report No. 1). Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987, March). Seven Principles for Good Practice. AAHE Bulletin 39, 3-7.
  • Cormier, C., & Voisard, B. (2018, January). Flipped Classroom in Organic Chemistry Has Significant Effect on Students’ Grades. Frontiers in ICT, 4, 30. doi:
  • Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011, May). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332, 862-864.
  • Mazur, E. (2009, January 2). Farewell, Lecture? Science, 323(5910), 50-51. Retrieved from
  • Nelson, G. D. (2002). Science for All Americans. New Directions for Higher Education, 119(Fall), 29-32.
  • Prince, M. (2004, July). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 223-231.
  • Vaughan, N., LeBlanc, A., Zimmer, J., Naested, I., Nickel, J., Sikora, S., . . . O’Connor, K. (2014). To Be or Not To Be. In A. G. Picciano, C. D. Dziuban, & C. R. Graham (Eds.), Blended Learning Research Perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 127-144). Routledge.
  • Weimer, M. (2012, March 27). Five Key Principles of Active Learning. Retrieved from Faculty Focus:

Photo Credits

Auditorium – Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash
Engagement – Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Hands – Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Library – Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash
Contemplation – Photo by sean Kong on Unsplash

An approach known as “inverted” or “flipped” learning is gaining momentum in contemporary higher education. Inverted learning figuratively flips the traditional lecture-plus-homework format of many college courses on its head. Rather than using class time for the largely one-way delivery of information from instructor to student, the lecture material is made available online for students to study prior to class. Then classroom time can be used for face-to-face interaction that includes clarification, amplification, small-group work, problem solving, review, and assessment of learning built on the foundation of online course content and readings.

As illustrated in Robert Talbert’s presentation, “Inverting the Classroom, Improving Student Learning,” the inverted learning model moves more of the transmission of information outside the classroom, so that class time can be devoted to higher-level assimilation activities. A growing body of research, including a widely publicized University of British Columbia study published recently in the journal Science, points to the efficacy of devoting class time to learning activities other than lectures.

By nature, inverted learning is well suited to “hybrid” courses, which include both regular classroom meetings—with class meeting time typically reduced by 50%—and significant online content delivered via a learning platform such as Blackboard. A pilot program for development of hybrid courses is the centerpiece of OSU’s new Teaching & Learning Technologies Initiative. A request for proposals to participate in this pilot program will be distributed to OSU faculty by early September.