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Active Learning

Tom Okon, CATE Instructional Designer
March 28, 2022

WHAT Heading link

Active learning is an instructional strategy that can help students take an active role in their learning, by participating in intentionally designed activities during class (Driessen et al. 2020).

Active learning illustration

Active learning.

Active Learning encourages students to:

  • Self-assess their learning before class
  • Tap into their prior knowledge during class
  • Reflect on their learning after class.

Active learning is an interactive and engaging process that helps students use cognitive strategies to construct learning by participating in various activities, for example:

Active learning stands in contrast to other modes of instruction in which instructors do most of the talking during class and students are primarily passive listeners, as occurs in many lecture-dominated classrooms.

Direct instruction in the form of lectures, has been the predominant mode of instruction since universities were founded and is still pervasive in many college classrooms today (Stains et al. 2018) despite evidence showing the benefits of active learning over lecture-dominated formats in both online and in-person learning environments (Freeman et al. 2014, Theobald et al. 2020, Khan et al. 2017).

Learning theories that emphasize the need for students to construct knowledge have long challenged the theoretical underpinnings of the traditional, instructor-focused, “teaching by telling” approach.  The 1999 NRC report “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School summarized decades of research in cognitive science and educational psychology supporting instructional practices that encourage students to ask questions and seek answers, as well as challenge students to explore the complexities of relevant, real-world problems.

How People Learn revealed several fundamental aspects of learning, with three points particularly relevant to the use of active learning in our classrooms:

  • Individual learners build on prior knowledge
  • Learning is promoted by constant feedback
  • Active learning is better retained than passive learning
happy students running through the grass

These aspects are modeled in an active learning classroom that incorporates activities intentionally designed to engage students, to challenge misconceptions, build on knowledge, and connect new ideas and experiences to existing knowledge to enhance skills and deepen conceptual understanding.

Active learning instruction ensures students receive feedback, have opportunities to self-assess, and monitor progress towards the achievement of the learning objectives. The formative assessment data that is collected during active learning instruction can provide the instructor with information to gauge students’ needs and build scaffolding during the learning process.

WHY Heading link

Active Learning Benefits All Students

Hundreds of classroom studies have been undertaken in the past several years to examine the efficacy of active learning in different contexts – varying disciplines, class sizes, institution types, student characteristics, and grade levels, etc. Although active learning is based on learning theories that impact all disciplines, many of the classroom studies have been done in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes.

This is not because active learning as a teaching practice is something specific to STEM disciplines, it’s just that STEM is where we have observed profound and inequitable student success outcomes attributed to pedagogical practices that include lecture-dominated instruction. As a result, substantial federal funding has been directed for studying the effects of active learning in STEM where lecture-dominated instruction persists (Stains et al. 2018).

In 2014, Scott Freeman and colleagues at the University of Washington conducted an extensive quantitative analysis of the research on active learning in college and university STEM courses. Their meta-study of over 200 studies of active learning classrooms showed that average examination scores and performance on concept tests improved in active learning courses compared to lecture-dominated courses and that students in lecture-dominated courses were more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning (see figure). This meta-study also documented that active learning leads to overall increases in examination performance that would effectively raise average grades by a half a letter grade, and that failure rates in lecture-dominated courses increase by 55% over the rates observed in active learning classrooms. Based on these findings, Freeman and colleagues conclude that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture-dominated instruction as the comparison group, and instead, research studies should compare different active learning methods in different contexts, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture-dominated instruction is substantially less effective than active learning.

There is such overwhelming evidence that lecture-dominated instruction is substantially less effective than active learning. (Freeman et al.2014)

figure A

Figure A: Students in lecture-dominated courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than in classes using active learning. 

Figure B

Figure B: Performance on identical concept tests increased by 0.88 standard deviations in active learning classroom. Source: Wieman 2014.

Active Learning Drives Performance Gains for Underserved Students & Promotes Equity in Higher Education

Efforts to retain undergraduate students in STEM have shown only limited success in higher education. Specifically, when we examine outcomes such as college grades and graduation rates, we observe a persistent equity gap between students who identify with groups historically underserved and underrepresented in STEM (URG) and their peers (non-URG). Classroom studies have examined the role of active learning in improving college retention rates, looking specifically for its impact on this equity gap.  Ballen, Wieman, and colleagues (2017) compared the academic performance outcomes for undergraduate students in lecture-dominated courses with those that integrated active learning. As depicted in the figure, engaging in active learning helped to close the equity gap between URG and non-URG students.  In addition to academic outcomes, this same study also examined changes in self-efficacy (a student’s belief in their own ability to achieve the learning objectives and become proficient in a particular subject) and students’ sense of belonging in STEM. The results showed that all students in active learning classrooms experienced an increase in science self-efficacy. Sense of social belonging also increased significantly with active learning, but only for non-URG students. These results add to a growing body of research that supports active learning and inclusive teaching as one pathway to a diversified STEM workforce.

Figure C

Figure C: Comparison of academic performance outcomes (mean semester grades; 95% confidence interval, controlling for incoming academic preparation) among students who identify with groups historically underserved and underrepresented in STEM (URG) and their peers (non-URG) in traditional (lecture-dominated) instruction and courses that integrate active learning. Source: Ballen, Wieman and colleagues (2017).

Strategies to Encourage Student Participation in Active Learning

Despite the evidence supporting the benefits of incorporating active learning into college classes, this teaching strategy has not been widely adopted (Stains et al. 2018). Student resistance is a commonly cited barrier to implementing or sustaining this instructional strategy (Seidel & Tanner 2013; Tharayil et al. 2018).  Reactions to any new teaching methods are not uniform across all students in a class, and reactions may even vary over the term, moving, for example, from concerns about grades to the relative contributions of their peers in learning activities.

A study comparing lecture-dominated instruction to classes that integrated active learning found that students who experienced the active learning classroom actually learned more but felt like they learned less and that the instructor was less effective at teaching as compared to a lecture-dominated course (Deslauriers 2019). This study illustrates how students can be “poor judges” of their learning. Strategies that require low cognitive effort — such as passively listening to a lecture — are often perceived by students to be more effective than active learning strategies. Thus, the impetus is on the instructor to address these misconceptions about active learning and mitigate student resistance. Students may not realize that the active learning activities are fostering a productive struggle (Pasquale, 2016) (Kapur & Bielaczyc, 2012) with the challenging aspects of the material. It is helpful if you (and your graduate student TAs in larger courses) are present to create, facilitate, and monitor the process, ensuring students are learning how to struggle positively and productively as engaged and critical thinkers.

To help garner buy-in from students, (Ellis, 2015) recommends several strategies that are positively associated with student participation in and feedback about active learning:

  • Explain the purpose or value of an activity. If it is an activity that you have implemented in past years, student quotes about key outcomes can be particularly powerful.
  • Show data supporting the use of active learning and how it benefits all students in the class.
  • Preview what might be challenging in doing a learning activity.
  • Clearly describe the process and what students are expected to produce.
  • Invite questions from students in the class.
  • Walk around the room (or move between breakout rooms on Zoom) during an activity, being mindful to check in with non-participating students by asking questions or checking to see if and how they may be stuck on a particular step or concept.

Sometimes, a few vocal students may give the impression that there is more discontent about a particular teaching practice than there actually is across the entire class, so collecting student feedback (such as using a mid-semester questionnaire) can give a more accurate picture of the range of student experiences.

HOW Heading link

Think of making time for active learning as “chunking the lecture.”

When planning how to integrate active learning into your class sessions, you may be concerned that there is not enough time to implement activities, due to the need to cover a specified amount of content. Using techniques like the flipped classroom or  “learn before lecture” (LBL) can help overcome this barrier to implementing active learning. Moravec et al. (2017) demonstrated that using LBLs, which shifted the presentation of new material from lecture to pre-class assignments, coupled with related participatory exercises during class, resulted in significant increases in student learning gains in a large introductory biology course.

An additional concern about active learning is the perception that an instructor has to abandon the lecture altogether. This is most definitely not true. Think of making time for active learning as “chunking the lecture.” As depicted in the figure below, this approach entails interleaving shorter lecture segments with a few active learning activities. Notably, a 10-12 min lecture segment better aligns with the attention span of your students, meaning they are more likely to listen and retain the information you’re sharing during this time.

To provide an organizational framework of what students will be learning in the class session and to encourage active listening, consider sharing the template for an Advance Organizer before you kick off your lecture segments. Then try wrapping up the class with a summary of what you covered and the insights that were discussed in the activities. You can also use this opportunity to introduce the information and concepts that you will cover in the next class.

By planning out the learning activities in your class sessions, you are adding structure to the lectures and student learning. This structure provides students with an awareness of active listening and active learning opportunities. Structure is a beneficial component for the learning environment as highly structured courses have been found to increase overall performance by all students, compared with a low-structured lecture-intensive course with no required active learning (Haak, 2011).

Figure D

Figure D: Active Learning entails interweaving lecture segments with active learning activities.

Using active learning techniques in your teaching requires only a willingness to try something new in the classroom and plan an activity that furthers your students’ progress towards achieving your learning objectives. With any use of active learning, it is important that the activity be perceived as more than “busy work” or a “break from the lecture.” Rather, the approach should be intentionally selected to allow students to practice applying a key concept or skill coupled to peer and/or instructor feedback (Wiggins et al. 2017).

Effective active learning tasks stimulate metacognition, foster discussion, involve peer instruction or group work, integrate feedback facilitating formative assessment, simulate authentic problem-solving using worksheets and games, and engage students in practicing competencies essential to achieving the learning objectives. There are a variety of techniques that can be used in and outside of class to create interactive learning environments for students

Techniques to Introduce Active Learning into your Classroom Heading link

Below is an overview of some techniques you might try in introducing active learning into your course:

Recommendations for Making Active Learning More Inclusive of Students with Disabilities Heading link

How Can I Make Active Learning Accessible?

Active learning significantly changes the usual classroom routines in ways that could create challenges for students with disabilities. A study by Gin et al. (2020) conducted interviews with 37 directors of university Disability Resource Centers (DRCs) across the United States. The study explored their familiarity with active learning, the processes for providing academic accommodations for students with disabilities in active learning courses, and their perceptions of the challenges associated with providing accommodations for students with disabilities in active learning classes.

Based on their study and drawing from the literature, they developed recommendations that instructors can use to make active learning more inclusive for students with disabilities and provided examples of active learning accommodations.

There are three general strategies you can take towards making your active learning classroom more accessible to students with disabilities: proactive course design, transparent communication about the course structure, and support for accommodations whenever needed.

Examples of Active Learning Accommodations Heading link

While there is no standardized set of accommodations for active learning, below are several suggestions for some common techniques used in courses across different institutions (Gin et al. 2020).