Active learning increases many student success outcomes, including performance, enthusiasm and cognitive engagement.
What Is Active Learning?
Active learning is anything course-related that all students in a class section are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes. (Felder and Brent, 2009, "Active Learning: An Introduction").
Evidence for Active Learning
Evidence of active learning’s efficacy is abundant, with the number of individual studies easily in the 1000s.
Reviews of active learning literature attempt to synthesize and articulate these results, and have generally found compelling evidence that increased learning gains and academic success are associated with the use active of learning. To view additional evidence for active learning, see our Faculty Resources page.
Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(July), 223–231.
Cited well over 1000 times, this article is a seminal piece of the active learning literature. Prince takes time to acknowledge and discuss the challenges faculty face interpreting the literature on active learning and his review is carefully attentive to these challenges. Prince sites numerous studies whose finding support the conclusion that active learning leads to increases on exam and concept inventory scores. Prince concludes that while results may vary in strength, there is adequate support for the efficacy of all forms of active learning.
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, 111(23), 8410–8415.
In this meta-analysis, Scott Freeman and colleagues analyzed 225 experimental studies that documented student performance in classes that used at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing. To be included in the study, the research had to meet both student performance criteria and active learning intervention criteria. Two significant findings reported are:
- When comparing active learning to traditional lecture, student performance on exams, concept inventories, or other assessments was almost half of a standard deviation higher for active learning (standard mean difference was 0.47, 𝑍=9.781,𝑃≪0.001).
- On average students in traditional lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with some active learning (33.8% failure rate for traditional lecturing and 21.8% failure rate for some active learning).
In the discussion, Freeman makes a striking comparison: “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit – meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”
Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30(4), 159–167.
Michael first reviews the evidence for active learning from the learning science, cognitive science, and educational Psychology literature. Michael identifies five key findings from the learning science, cognitive science, and educational Psychology literature, drawing heavily on Bransford et al. (1999).
- Learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner,
- Learning facts (“what” – declarative knowledge) and learning to do something (“How” – procedural knowledge) are two different processes,
- Some things that are learned are specific to the domain or context in which they were learned, whereas other things are more readily transferred to other domains,
- Individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others than when they learn alone,
- Meaningful learning is facilitated by articulating explanations, whether to one’s self, peers, or teachers.
He goes on to summarize specific studies from physics, chemistry, biology, and physiology, all of which show student learning gains associated with active learning.
Similar reviews that focus on the humanities and social science have not been done, however the evidence suggests that active learning techniques are generally effective across disciplines.
Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998). Cooperative Learning Returns To College What Evidence Is There That It Works? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 30(4), 26–35.
Comprehensive article that considers the theory, definition, research and implementation of cooperative learning. In a meta-analysis of over 168 college studies Johnson et al. found evidence that cooperative learning promotes higher individual achievement than do competitive or individualistic approaches. Using the observed effect sizes, they point out this would mean that a student scoring in the 50th percentile level with competitive learning would be in the 69th percentile when learning cooperatively. Other learning outcomes showed similar gains, and Johnson et al. conclude: “cooperative learning is a very cost-effective instructional procedure. It affects many different instructional outcomes simultaneously.”
Instructional Approaches that Characterize Active Learning
Flipping the Classroom
As long as students are doing and participating in the learning, active learning is happening!
The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures typically are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.
Team-based learning (TBL) is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams, typically of 5-7 students, that work together throughout the class.
POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning)
In a POGIL classroom, students work in learning teams on guided inquiry exercises. The Process-Oriented component of POGIL is designed to have each instructor think about what process skills are important to develop for his or her students. The Guided Inquiry component of POGIL explicitly enhances the analytical and critical thinking skills of the students through the design of the activities (the learning cycle) and the use of groups requiring students to explain their reasoning.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. The problem motivates the student and drives the learning.
Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups in which students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning. It may be contrasted with competitive (students work against each other to achieve an academic goal such as a grade of “A” that only one or a few students can attain) and individualistic (students work by themselves to accomplish learning goals unrelated to those of the other students) learning.
Collaborative learning is based on the learner as the primary focus of instruction, where interaction and doing are of primary importance. It can occur with pairs of peers or larger groups, where the groups develop solutions to real-world problems.
How much do you know about active learning? Do you feel comfortable talking about it to your colleagues? Here are some common questions and answers.
What is active learning?
There is no single, canonical definition for active learning. We recommend Felder & Brent’s (2009) definition of active learning as "anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes" (p. 2). This definition is not authoritative. Some people may have different ideas about active learning, and that is okay.
Is active learning just a trend?
Although the phrase “active learning” has become popular in recent years, active learning techniques have been around for decades and are designed to engage students in the learning process.
When does active learning happen?
It’s important to include active learning activities in a class session. Assigning homework problems to be done outside of class technically fits the definition of active learning, but most people think about active learning as activities happening during class time.
Does active learning support student success?
Active learning can increase student participation, enthusiasm, and cognitive engagement! It’s a powerful approach to teaching and learning.
What is an example of active learning?
Active learning can be as simple as pausing a lecture and having students discuss the material in pairs or small groups, or as involved as team-based learning, and culminating course projects.
How do I get involved with active learning?
Check out our upcoming program offerings or apply to teach in the TILL to experiment with active learning! We are always looking to partner with new faculty.
Active Learning Opportunities at the TILL
Start experimenting with active learning when you get involved in programs and events at the TILL. Learn more about each opportunity below.
Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69(9), 970–977.
Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (2009). Active learning: An introduction. ASQ Higher Education Brief, 2(4), 1-5.
Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64–74.
Smith, K. A., Sheppard, S. D., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2005). Pedagogies of Engagement: Classroom-Based Practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 87–101.
Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21–51.
Bishop, J. L., & Verleger, M. A. (2013, June). The flipped classroom: A survey of the research. In ASEE National Conference Proceedings, Atlanta, GA (Vol. 30, No. 9, pp. 1-18).
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Mind, brain, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Research Council.