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Sunday, October 31, 2021

On the importance of active learning

I'm on the editorial board of an education journal so I've been following the pedagogical literature for many years. The idea of active learning, or student-centered learning, has been around for decades and there's solid evidence showing that it's way more effective than traditional lecture-style learning. If you are a teacher and you haven't adopted some form of active learning in your class then you need to change as soon as possible. There's no scientific justification for sticking with the traditional ways of teaching.

A recent issue of Science contains eight short articles on active learning. They are introduced by a very short editorial.

Widespread disruptions to schooling spurred by COVID-19 have amplified long-standing discussions about what high-quality teaching and learning can be. Growing bodies of research and practice, from early childhood to university classrooms and beyond, demonstrate the benefits of moving beyond traditional lecture-driven approaches in favor of “active learning.” Such approaches put students more in the driver’s seat through discussions, in-class questions, and feedback; interactive technologies; and other strategies to engage learners and deepen understanding. Beyond cognitive and academic benefits, active-learning approaches can also provide socioemotional support, particularly for students who may not feel at home in or supported by traditional passive learning. But there is no single active-learning approach. Instead, as the experts below describe, we see a rich and developing portfolio of methods and ideas supporting different ways to produce more effective learning.

One of the short articles is particulary interesting ("Students may learn more than they think"). The authors teach undergraduate physics and they ran an experiment where one group of students took an active-learning course while another took a traditional lecture course. The teachers compared the actual learning in the two groups with how the students perceived their learning experience. The results are consistent with previous studies: students actually learned more in the active learning environment but they thought they learned more in the lecture environment.

These misperceptions have broad implications for STEM education. Course evaluations based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior methods of instruction—a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are. By contrast, the cognitive effort involved in active learning is a sign of effective learning, even if students may not always perceive it that way. Moreover, these perceptions of learning may also play a role with popular active-learning methods that rely heavily on instructor feedback.

It's not only the students who fail to appreciate the long-term effects of active learning but also the instructors. Lecture formats are really good at transferring facts and information from the instructor to the students so it's not surprising that the lecturers think they are doing a good job with their well-honed powerpoint presentations. Students respond by memorizing all the facts and information in order to do well on the tests.

But this is not deep learning. In order to firmly grasp fundamental concepts and principles, the students need to get active feedback to their questions and they need to try out their newly acquired concepts with their peers in order to solidify them. And they need to express and discuss their doubts and misconceptions, which may be interfering with their adoption of new ideas.

The authors of this study close with some recommendations for instructors.

We recommend that instructors intervene early in the semester to discuss notions of learning versus the feeling of learning and persuade students that they are in fact benefiting from the sustained mental efforts associated with active learning. This mismatch between actual learning and the feeling of learning must be addressed and understood by faculty and students for these proven instructional strategies to be more effective and to become widespread.

I don't agree with this. The best way to show students that an active learning environment is superior is to reward them and praise them for what they have learned, not what they have memorized. You don't need to set up a conflict between your way of teaching and that of your colleagues who are sticking with traditional lectures. For now, that conflict should stay within the confines of departmental meetings where you'll have a tough enough job convincing your fellow lecturers to move into the 21st century.

Photo credit: The photo shows one of my introductory biochemistry classes from back in the days when I thought that a powerpoint presentation was the best way to teach.


  1. But does active learning actually entail higher quality learning or does it only give the appearance because they learn less (because they are being taught less), thus better grades and the aura of "deep learning"?

    Far too many students, and educators, forget about the students own part in *active* learning. If most students don't like lectures but they have no other choice well, darn, it ain't going to hurt them if they study more. If a student is passive in lecture type classes and doesn't put in the work how is that the fault of the educator or system? I understand that some students get straight As as a matter of rote in lecture classes but don't actually comprehend the data (deep learning) but that's their fault. An educator can only do so much, nobody can help someone who can't help themselves.

    I'm a student and have never thought, I thrive and like lectures so I'm biased here.

    Been reading this blog for years. Thanks Dr Moran for all you do.

    -César D.

    1. César D. said, "An educator can only do so much, nobody can help someone who can't help themselves."

      Actually, we can do something. We can set up learning environments where a student MUST help themselves or fail the course.

      We know why students like the lecture/regurgitation format. They've already demonstrated that they're good at it so they get very nervous when they have to cope with a different format. But part of a university education is to challenge students by taking them out of their comfort zone. In fact, there are those who argue that this is the only way to make them question their biases and misconceptions. (I agree with that point of view.)

  2. From an old psychology point of view, if you cannot perform the behaviour it is not learned.

  3. Prof. Moran,
    Can you give us some examples of how you adapt a biochemistry course using your textbook for active learning?
    What do you have your students do?
    What do you do?
    I teach physical science and astronomy for non-science majors, and I’d be interested in learned how to be more effective.
    Bernard Leikind

    1. The first thing you need to understand is that the textbook is a reference tool. It's where students can go to find information that they don't need to commit to memory. You don't waste time in lectures repeating what the students can easily find in the textbook.

      Active learning environments are difficult to set up in large classes. The best way to do it is to have mandatory tutorials but then you have to train a large number of TAs and that's almost as difficult as teaching undergraduates.

      I taught a class on molecular evolution. I divided the class into groups of four or five students and asked them to come up with a collective answer to a particular question. They choose a spokesperson to give their answer and then they compare their answer to the ones given by the other groups. Then they go back and rethink their answer in light of additional information. The idea is for everyone in the class to arrive at the best answer.

      You have to choose your questions very carefully because you want to pick questions where a large percentage of the students will initially be thinking of the wrong answer. In my case, it was fairly easy to come up with questions such as "What is a gene?" "Why is there a molecular clock?"