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Does Active Learning Work?

It's Worth Discussing

Does Active Learning Work?

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Why this article is worth discussing: A lot of us would wholeheartedly agree that active learning works. We have some familiarity with the research that supports it, and we’ve seen its positive effects in our classrooms. Done well, it engages students and overcomes the passivity that lectures regularly produce. John Dewey was right; students learn by doing better than by listening. So, we think we know the answer to the question, but this article challenges that assumption. It explores definitions of active learning, its intensity, how it’s delivered, and how its effects are assessed. It’s predicated on the assumption that we don’t know as much about active learning as we need to know. That’s the reason it’s an article worth discussing.

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Editor’s note: The following article is part of a resource collection called It’s Worth Discussing, in which we feature research articles that are especially suitable for personal reflection and group discussion with your colleagues.

Why this article is worth discussing: A lot of us would wholeheartedly agree that active learning works. We have some familiarity with the research that supports it, and we’ve seen its positive effects in our classrooms. Done well, it engages students and overcomes the passivity that lectures regularly produce. John Dewey was right; students learn by doing better than by listening. So, we think we know the answer to the question, but this article challenges that assumption. It explores definitions of active learning, its intensity, how it’s delivered, and how its effects are assessed. It’s predicated on the assumption that we don’t know as much about active learning as we need to know. That’s the reason it’s an article worth discussing.

The article

Bernstein, D. A. (2018). Does active learning work? A good question, but not the right one. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(4), 290–307. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000124

A synopsis

The crux of Bernstein’s argument lies in the subtitle. He contends that we aren’t asking the right question about active learning. We have to stop assuming active learning improves student performance no matter what the content, course level, or teacher’s and students’ characteristics. Rather than putting the question in a global context, we need to make it one that teachers address individually: Which active learning methods work for my students when I use those methods with my content and in the courses I teach? The article explores eight variables that affect active learning outcomes. Little attention has been paid to most of them in research and practice.

Key quotations and discussion questions

1. Active learning methods used differently

“‘Active learning’ encompasses a wide range of teaching methods, each of which can be located in a conceptual space defined by the degree of preparation, student commitment, and risk of problems and failure involved” (p. 291).

A table in the article (p. 291) lists 24 different active learning methods, including asking questions, role playing, debating, service learning, flipped classroom, concept mapping, and minute papers.

“The many active learning methods listed in Table 1 are general labels for procedures that are actually being delivered in different ways by different teacher/researchers” (p. 293).

  • Does it matter whether we use active learning approaches differently? Is it only an issue for researchers, or does the variation in individual use have potential effects on outcomes?
  • Do all these different active learning methods need to be classified? If so, what might that classification system look like?
  • Do the various active learning methods promote different kinds of learning? If so, what are some examples?

2. Lecture–active learning connections

“Many if not most experienced teachers in higher education employ some form of interactive lecturing” (p. 294).

Bernstein offers these examples of active learning techniques frequently incorporated in lectures: demonstrations, group activities, participation, and quizzing.

“If the lectures in the ‘lecture-only’ condition actually include opportunities for students to answer questions or engage in other elements of active learning, the comparative impact of the active learning conditions is likely to be small” (p. 294).

  • Do you agree that most teachers no longer do “straight lectures”?
  • If the instructor occasionally asks for questions, and maybe a student or two ask a question, is that active learning? If not, how much student involvement merits the active learning descriptor?
  • Ongoing concern about the amount of lecturing continues. How do we determine when there is enough active learning in lectures? Or when there’s enough lecture in active learning activities?
  • Can lectures and active learning approaches be used together, synergistically? What would be an example?

3. The skill level of the teacher

Bernstein cites three review articles that

“suggest that the impressive benefits of active learning reported by highly skilled active learning advocates do not usually appear when attempted by the average instructor” (p. 295).

  • What role does experience play in the design and delivery of an active learning activity?
  • Can any teacher use active learning techniques effectively?
  • If positive outcomes do not result from the use of an active learning technique, how does a teacher decide whether the problem is with the technique or with its delivery?

4. The relationship between an active learning approach and the content it uses

Active learning methods are being used and studied in a wide range of disciplines, and Bernstein writes that

“advocates suggest that active learning can improve students’ performance in every subject” (p. 291).

Later, he points out,

“There are as [of] yet no systematic studies on this variable, and thus no evidence to suggest that active learning methods in general are any more or less useful in any particular discipline” (p. 296).

  • Are there features of the content you teach that do and don’t match with specific active learning methods? What’s an example?
  • Do teachers use explicit criteria to match content with active learning approaches? Are there criteria they should be using?
  • Is it a case of active learning techniques working in every discipline but only certain ones affecting learning outcomes in that field? Or can any active learning approach be adapted for use in any field?

5. Active learnings effects on learning outcomes

“The effects of active learning have been measured on many dependent variables” (p. 296).

Bernstein lists these: course exams, performance on professional tasks, academic skills, end of course ratings, changes in attitudes about education, and course and program dropout rates.

“Conclusions about whether active learning methods ‘work’ are heavily dependent on how their impact is assessed” (p. 296).

  • Are all these outcomes equally appropriate measures of active learning? Which ones are most and least appropriate?
  • Can everything that active learning accomplishes be measured? If not, what can’t be measured? Alternatively, what aren’t we measuring?
  • Are some active learning approaches more likely than others to achieve learning outcomes? Which ones and why?

6. The individual teacher’s experience with active learning

“Nothing in the present review suggests that teachers should stop using active learning methods that work for them, especially if their satisfaction is based on empirical evaluation of those methods with their own students” (p. 299).

  • Do most teachers assess the effectiveness of their active learning approaches as rigorously as they should?
  • When teachers decide to use a particular active learning method, does their commitment to the method compromise their ability to objectively assess its effects?
  • Is it realistic to expect busy teachers to empirically evaluate the active learning methods they’re using? Are there easy, straightforward ways of doing so? What’s wrong with trusting the research done by others?