Eating your Peas, like Active Learning, not Preferred but Better for You.

[This is the first in a series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share the latest pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format]

“I wish he would just lecture instead of all this active learning stuff. I just want to sit back and take notes.” – Overheard walking behind two students exiting a large lecture class.

The sentiment raised by the students in the anecdote above is not an anomaly. Many students seem to abhor interacting in a classroom. Unfortunately, just like parents nudging their children to eat more greens and less fried food, what is disliked, IS better. Active learning pedagogies are linked to better student learning outcomes (see Freeman et al., 2014; Hake 1998). A lot of the research is correlational in nature as it is difficult to do head to head comparisons of active versus passive learning. Difficult, but not impossible.

How nice would it be to compare how the same students learn the same material when taught using active learning versus passive learning? This is exactly what Deslauriers and colleagues did (2019). Students enrolled in physics classes at Harvard received instruction- chalkboard lectures, demonstrations, quizzes- from their primary instructor for 12 weeks of a 15-week semester. Then things took a twist.

What did they do? All the students then spent two class meetings with one of two different instructors (A or B). In the first class, half the students, randomly assigned, received instruction using an active learning method – students solved problems in groups before getting solutions. The other half received instruction on the same material using a passive learning method – students received the solutions of the problems. For the second class, students instructed with the active method got the passive method and vice versa (see the figure below).

What did they find? Students reported on how much they liked the classes, how much they felt they learned, and took a test to see how much they actually learned. The bottom lines:  1. Students rated the quality of instruction in the passive section higher than the active section, 2. Students FELT they learned more when taught in the passive style, and 3. Students actually learned MORE in the active class.

This study had many strengths. Researchers randomly assigned students to type of instruction and checks established there were no differences in students between conditions. Both the experimental instructors were experienced and skilled and novel to the students. The content covered in both sections were identical and experimental instructors did not see the test of learning. The statistical analyses and controls suggest strong internal validity.

[For full resolution result figures and the materials used go here]

What does this mean for us? Yes, this was one study, on one set of students who were Harvard students. Yes, this was one way to define ‘active learning”. We also do not know if the differences in feelings of having learnt and actual learning will stay the same after a period of time. Will the students come to realize that that the active learning was better in the long run? As our parents say, “You’ll thank me later.”

These qualms aside, this study is one of the first well-controlled comparisons. Instructors hear students complain about active learning and may feel pressured to give in and be passive. Active learning also takes more work to set up in the first place. This study adds to the larger body of work to demonstrate that the effort to use active learning strategies is worth it but student impressions should be addressed.  Instructors should make the reasons for using active learning clear. Acknowledging that while needing more cognitive energy (for all involved), active engagement exercises relate to better learning. Perhaps show students the data from this study (below) and provide them with an early gauge of their learning or lack thereof, give an early assessment.

Yes, there are many ways to get students to be active and not all methods may work (Bernstein, 2018). Scholars should now go beyond “if” active learning works to more systematically and critically analyze “why” and “what” works and how to better implement such strategies.

About the Author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Interim Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University and Director of the General Psychology program in the School of Psychological Science. Homepage

Bernstein, D. A. (2018). Does active learning work? A good question, but not the right one. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(4), 290–307.
Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(39), 19251–19257.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 111(23), 8410–8415.
Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement vs. tradition methods: A six-thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66,  64-74.

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