Does active learning work to promote learning? That's the question we've been asking, and it's one we can stop asking. It's been answered—at least that's the consensus within the research community. The results are consistent and, according to Streveler and Menekse (2017), “allow us to be confident that, on average, engaging students through active strategies enhances learning” (p. 186).
That doesn't mean we know everything we need to know about active learning. For starters, these authors note, it's a phrase that “encompasses a wide spectrum of learning activities” (p. 186). The questions that we need to be asking now relate to what kind of active learning works best. Is group work better than hands-on application? Is one kind of group work better than another?
Asking the what-kind-is-best question raises a set of related questions. What kind is best likely depends on the situation. Which active learning strategies most effectively enhance learning in an online course? A lab? A capstone seminar? The effectiveness of active learning approaches probably also depends on the content. What activities work best with when the content is concrete, fixed, and specific? What about when the content is more abstract and theoretical? Then there's those learning objectives beyond content knowledge. Do some active learning strategies develop critical thinking skills better than others? Writing skills? Problem-solving skills? Communication competence? Finally, there are students, an increasingly diverse population of them, who learn in many different ways. We should be asking what kinds of active learning helps various kinds of students learn—those just starting college, those with learning disabilities, those well-prepared and not so well-prepared, those who are young adults, and those who are mature.
Streveler and Menekse suggest some other interesting and useful ways of moving beyond the does-it-work question. They suggest that the effects of active learning can be categorized behaviorally. What happens to learning outcomes when students engage in behaviors associated with active learning? They cite research that considered learning gains when students just listened passively; when they rehearsed and reinforced new knowledge by repeating or underlining it; when they individually constructed the knowledge for themselves by, for example, drawing concept maps, solving problems, or generating explanations; and when they constructed the knowledge with others in group. The learning gains increased sequentially through these activities, with the highest gains in groups where the knowledge was constructed collaboratively.
Questions about active learning can be explored with a “knowledge integration framework” that proposes “learners construct knowledge by continuously evaluating, refining, and developing ideas they receive from formal training in schools as well as from their everyday lives” (p. 188). A set of principles and guidelines that has been developed from this framework can be used to design learning activities that promote integrated understanding of complex concepts. The framework also offers other ways to generate questions about active learning:
We need to be asking new and different questions about active learning in our research, but these questions must be relevant to how individual faculty select, implement, and assess the active learning strategies used in their classrooms. What activities have been selected for use? Are some of them working better than others? How does the same strategy work when it's used in different courses? What's the interplay between the strategy and the content? Does the strategy fit the content? And how do individual students experience and respond to the strategy?
“Active learning is not a panacea that is a blanket remedy for all instructional inadequacies. Instead, it is a collective term for a group of instructional strategies that produce different results and require differing degrees of time to design, implement and assess” (p. 189). We know that active learning works. Now we need to drill down to the details.
Reference: Streveler, R. A., & Menekse, M. (2017). Taking a closer look at active learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 106(2), 186–190.