Over the past two decades, numerous studies have explored the effectiveness of active learning in the college classroom. Active learning uses activities and instruction designed to enhance conceptual cognition; students become enthusiastic participants in their own education. They — not the instructor — control their own learning.
More than just a buzzword in education circles, active learning has been shown to boost academic achievement. Turns out converting students into active rather than passive participants in their own learning journey truly works.
A compelling body of research into active learning’s value is proving it to be a particularly effective teaching tool in the all-important STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines and in helping disadvantaged students succeed. The books and papers discussed here also provide advice on how to incorporate active learning methods in higher education classrooms.
On the forefront of the active learning movement
Dating back to the 1980s, seminal publications continue to influence today’s active learning classrooms. These works pioneered the concept of active learning through research, analysis, and commentary.
Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. Published in 1991, this research paper by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison asserts students gain knowledge by undertaking learning activities versus merely listening to lectures. According to the authors, “They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems.” Doing so triggers higher-order thinking characterized by analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of ideas.
In a broad sense, active learning strategies, they write, direct students to “[do] things and [think] about what they are doing.” The authors also recommend discussion, questioning techniques (for example: “What solutions would you suggest?”), and other strategies that promote active learning, such as developing case studies based on hypothetical scenarios.
Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Though not specified in the title, this 1987 paper nevertheless lays out key active learning basics. An effective teacher, according to authors Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, does the following:
- Encourages contact between students and faculty
- Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
- Encourages active learning
- Gives prompt feedback
- Emphasizes time on task
- Communicates high expectations
- Respects diverse talents and ways of learning
Seven Principles expounds on each of these ideas. Exploring number three on the list, for example, authors define active teaching techniques as those incorporating “structured exercises, challenging discussions, team projects, and peer critiques.” And in an oft-used analogy, Chickering and Gamson remind educators that “learning is not a spectator sport.” This early work is a must-read for every instructor who wants to create an active learning classroom.
Statistics on the effect of active learning
By undertaking an in-depth meta-analysis of classroom data, several researchers and academics have verified the effectiveness of active learning. Data shows that students participating in active learning classrooms scored higher on tests, and course pass rates also improved.
Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering and Mathematics. Published in 2014, this paper by academics at the University of Washington and the University of Maine set out to test the theory of whether active learning outperformed traditional lectures in STEM courses. The authors ultimately concluded from a meta-analysis of 225 reports on examination scores and failure rates that active learning remarkably improves learning outcomes. Specifically, researchers found:
- Student performance on examinations and concept inventories increased by 0.47 standard deviations (SDs) with active learning methods.
- Average examination scores improved by about 6 percent in active learning classrooms. Meanwhile, students whose primary mode of instruction was through a lecture were 1.5 times more likely to fail.
The report further notes the results appear consistent across all the STEM disciplines, with active learning lifting concept inventory scores more than course examination grades. Smaller class sizes (fewer than 50 students) gained the greatest improvement from active learning, although all class sizes benefited from this method. These findings, the authors conclude, “raise questions about the continued use of traditional lecturing … and support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms.”
Increased Structure and Active Learning Reduce the Achievement Gap in Introductory Biology. Researchers at the University of Washington examined the effects of active and structured learning techniques on students taking an introductory biology course. Many students were in the university’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which groups students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, most of whom are the first in their family to enter college.
The study began by looking at the failure rates for this particular course between 2003 and 2008. During this time, the mean failure rate for EOP students stood at 21.9 percent versus 10.1 percent for non-EOP students — placing it among the highest achievement gaps at the university. To ascertain if this gap could be closed through active learning, researchers reviewed how the grades in introductory biology courses over four quarters varied between classes using highly structured active learning exercises (including daily “clicker” questions and weekly peer-reviewed practice exams) and those that followed a low-structure lecture format.
Active learning, the researchers ultimately concluded, benefited all students, but had a bigger impact on the EOP students. Structured active learning reduced the raw achievement gap for EOP students compared to non-EOP students from 0.80 to 0.44 grade points. Researchers attribute this narrowing to providing EOP students with the opportunity to practice higher-level thinking, solve problems, and interact with other students in an active learning setting.
The one book to read on active learning
Ironically, one of the most important books on this subject hardly specifies “active learning.” Instead, author John A.C. Hattie uses the term “visible learning” — but the ideas are enormously relevant.
Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. This 2009 book ranks as a must-read for instructors who want to incorporate active learning techniques in their classroom. His “visible learning” centers on identifying a learning goal, giving students challenging opportunities to master that objective, and providing them with plenty of feedback from the teacher. In his view, teachers and students switch their traditional roles.
“[Visible learning] is teachers seeing learning through the eyes of the students, and students seeing teaching as the ongoing key to their learning,” he writes. The biggest effects on student learning, he says, occur when “teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.”
The research on active learning far outnumbers the few studies listed here. These reports, however, offer a rich overview of the topic and actionable strategies for instructors. One noteworthy resource is Active Learning in Higher Education, a peer-reviewed journal of scholarly articles on active learning. Higher-education institutions also provide excellent materials on active learning, such as the University of Michigan’sCenter for Research on Learning and Teaching.
Finally, be sure to check regularly on Acrobatiq’s own blog and resource library for white papers, case studies, and other in-depth information on the intersection of active learning, instructional design, and data.
Maria Wood is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in business reporting, finance, education and technology.