Active Learning on the Uptick?

Updated: Jan 28


The evidence is overwhelming that employing active learning strategies leads to deeper learning, increased retention and higher performance. In fact, the EDCAUSE Horizon Report: 2019 Higher Education Edition states 73 percent of universities surveyed indicate active learning classrooms are in the planning process or being implemented in 2020.

Active learning is an instructional approach that puts the student in the center of the learning. This teaching methodology actively engages the learner and is a contrast with the traditional lecture-based approaches where the instructor does most of the talking and students are passive. Some of the many strategies that instructors use to promote active learning include group discussions, peer instruction, problem-solving, case studies, role playing, journal writing and structured learning groups.


Several trends we’ve seen on campuses across the country bode well for active learning:


  • Courses redesigned for improved outcomes. Increasingly, schools are incentivizing faculty to redesign courses around measurable outcomes, and these redesigned courses tend to employ a greater degree of active learning strategies.

  • Changing the role of assessments. Formative assessments, which are used to drive learning rather than to measure learning, are cropping up across the college curriculum. These can be used to personalize the learning for students, and to guide instructors to continuously improve the teaching. Also, schools are adopting strategies that promote active learning, such as e-portfolios and peer review.

  • Increased use of active learning classrooms. More of these flexible learning environments are cropping up on college campuses, along with professional development on how to use them effectively.

  • Use of mobile devices for learning. Ed tech tools are finally being designed to be mobile responsive. A host of recently launched apps makes it easier for students to use their personal mobile devices to access content and education platforms.

  • Collaborative faculty development. Higher ed faculty development budgets are increasing, and increasingly these budgets are being used for collaborative faculty learning experiences that model these successful active learning strategies.

At the same time, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests student misperceptions surrounding depth of learning in a lecture-based classroom vs. an active learning classroom could affect active learning’s upward momentum; indicating, an "inherent student bias against active learning that can limit its effectiveness and may hinder the wide adoption of these methods.”


Active learning, by its very nature, requires more cognitive effort on the part of the student than listening to a lecture - and students sometimes interpret this additional effort as less effective learning. Combine this with a professor who delivers a vibrant and engaging lecture and students could mistakenly view the lecture as providing more effective teaching than active learning.


Lead author for the study, Louis Deslauriers, director of science teaching and learning at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences emphasizes "If you use active learning properly, your students will learn more and they will enjoy and appreciate it, especially once they see evidence of their learning. It just turns out that a superstar traditional lecturer might provide such a high feeling-of-learning that they will be able to compete or even get higher student evaluations.”


How a college student engages with active learning will depend on his or her exposure prior to entering college. The more they engaged in active learning in their high school years and earlier, the more likely they are to value the effectiveness of active learning over a lecture in their college years.


The PNAS study offers good news in changing student misperceptions. Because active learning classrooms change the way students also engage with faculty, there’s an opportunity for faculty to take on a role more aligned with that of a facilitator or coach, beginning on Day 1 with an introduction to what active learning is and why it’s more effective over lecture-only teaching. If students feel nurtured and encouraged from the get-go, they’re more likely to see the effort required for active learning as worth it and effective.

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