Resources on the Efficacy of Active Learning

A recent study reminds us of the importance of active learning. This study reveals that student learning suffered during the switch to remote teaching earlier this year, but that small group activities helped to reduce this loss. See “The Power of Peer Interaction” by Colleen Flaherty, published by Inside Higher Ed on November 3, 2020.

The research on the value of active learning (or the term we prefer: participatory learning) is irrefutable. In May 2014, several scholars from a variety of STEM disciplines published a meta-analysis of 225 separate studies of different ways of teaching and learning. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they argued that active learning improved student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, from test scores to retention and applicability, or the ability to apply classroom learning to new situations. They write, “students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” A follow-up meta-study conducted in 2020, showed the same kind of results were even more evident if difference, equality, diversity, and inclusion were taken into account. Another showed equally significant improvements in learning and understanding for international students. One popular account of the PNAS study quipped that if comparative results had been this clear cut in a pharmaceutical study, traditional pedagogy would be taken off the market.

Yet, for most of us, even those most eager to change how we teach, transformation is not easy. We have been rewarded for our success in the traditional system of formal education—as have our students. In fact, another 2019 PNAS study of large-enrollment introductory college physics courses showed that even though students in an active classroom learn more, unless instructors show students how active learning works, the increased cognitive effort required during active learning makes students feel as though they learned less. The authors write, “As the success of active learning crucially depends on student motivation and engagement, it is of paramount importance that students appreciate, early in the semester, the benefits of struggling with the material during active learning.” Metacognition, or taking time to reflect on what we are learning and why, is a crucial part of the participatory learning process. If we are going to ask our students to do more—to be responsible co-learners and not simply do what is required to ace the final—then we also have to give them something meaningful, with more tangible and lasting results. 

Metacognition is where deep and meaningful learning happens. “Scientists believe that self-awareness, associated with the paralimbic network of the brain, serves as a ‘tool for monitoring and controlling our behavior and adjusting our beliefs of the world, not only within ourselves, but, importantly, between individuals.’ This higher-order thinking strategy actually changes the structure of the brain, making it more flexible and open to even greater learning” (Price-Mitchell). Rarely do we describe for students what and why they are learning. Yet “reflection” or “metacognition” (the structured, intentional consideration of what one has mastered and how one has mastered it) is one of the most important cognitive tools we can pass on to our students.


Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, and Greg Kestin, “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 39, 2019, pp. 19251-19257, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821936116.

Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 23, 2014, pp. 8410-8415, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Mauricio Marrone, Murray Taylor, Mara Hammerle, “Do International Students Appreciate Active Learning in Lectures?” Australasian Journal of Information Systems, vol. 22, 2018, https://doi.org/10.3127%2Fajis.v22i0.1334.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “Metacognition: Nuturing Self-Awareness in the Classroom,” Edutopia, April 7, 2015, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-pathways-metacognition-in-classroom-marilyn-price-mitchell.

Theobald, E. J., et al., “Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 12, 2014, pp. 6476-6483, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117.

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