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 | susan.fein@oregonstate.edu

References

  • 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:https://doi.org/10.3389/fict.2017.00030
  • 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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/20177113
  • 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: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/five-key-principles-of-active-learning/

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

Great places to find answers to this question are the Lilly Conferences on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning held annually at six sites from coast to coast. These conferences invite participants to engage in lively dialogue about the scholarship of teaching and learning, share best practices and hone teaching skills. Lilly Conferences are not specific to any course modality; they cover classroom, hybrid and online teaching. I found the three topics from August’s Lilly – Asheville Conference of particular interest: alternative approaches to traditional grading, faculty and student empathy, and strategies to enhance the effectiveness of lectures.

Alternative Grading Systems

Michael Palmer,  director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence, challenged conference attendees to address the question “How does grading influence learning?” He then encouraged examination of alternative approaches to traditional grading practices, and explained specifications (“specs”) grading, which he personally uses. Briefly, specifications grading involves:

  • Grading assignments and assessments on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis, where mastery (passing) is set at a “B” level or better.
  • Bundling assignments and assessments together and allowing students to select these “bundles” based on the final course grade they are seeking. Bundles are aligned with specific course learning outcomes. Higher final grades require students to do more work and/or more challenging work.
  • Building in flexibility by giving students a few tokens at the outset that they can trade in for an extension on an assignment or an opportunity to revise/redo an unsatisfactory assignment.

Advocates of specs grading tout its effectiveness in motivating and engaging students while restoring rigor, providing actionable feedback (Palmer gives audio feedback) and supporting deep learning. To learn more, see Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading. Regarding ways to provide feedback that enhances learning in online courses, see Wanted: Effective Instructor Feedback.

Empathy and Student Success

Katherine Rowell of Ohio’s Sinclair Community College spoke eloquently about “The Importance of Teacher and Student Empathy in Student Success.”

  • She noted that positive faculty-student relationships are a principal factor predicting student success. In fact, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue survey found that college graduates were far more likely to be engaged in their work and thriving in key areas of well-being if they had one or more positive relationships with faculty.
  • Rowell encouraged the audience to learn more about the role that empathy plays in student success, and to look at how empathy—by both instructors and students—is manifest in the college classroom, including the online classroom.
  • She recommended Christopher Uhl and Dana Stuchul’s book Teaching as If Life Matters which encourages teachers to nurture students in ways that make learning beneficial for a more meaningful life. In this regard, OSU Business instructor Nikki Brown’s recent post in this blog on meeting students where they are is a excellent place to start.

Improving Lectures

Todd Zakrajsek of UNC-Chapel Hill presented evidence-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. His message can be applied to asynchronous online learning as well as to on-campus courses:

  • Lectures and active learning are not mutually exclusive. Using lectures, including short online lectures, plus active learning can reach more learners better than using either technique in the absence of the other. Think of strategies to get learners to interact with the lecture content!
  • “We have to stop thinking there’s only one kind of lecture.” Just as there are many varieties of active learning, there are multiple kinds of lecturing!  The classic college lecture model is continuous expository lecturing, which can effectively stifle student engagement when delivered non-stop in one-hour doses! It’s useful to consider how other approaches such as case-study, discussion-framing, and problem-solving lectures can be used in online and hybrid courses.
  • We all benefit from examining the research on how learners learn, and applying this knowledge  to inform course development and teaching, including lecture design. For more on this, see The New Science of Learning, co-authored by Zakrajsek and Terry Doyle. Also consider meeting students where they are.

What are your experiences with these topics: Have you explored alternative grading systems? How do you use empathy in your teaching? What are some strategies you use to improve lecture effectiveness and incorporate active learning? Please share your ideas here.