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.
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
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.
“‘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).
“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).
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).
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).
“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).
“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).