What does research say about active learning?

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What is active learning?

Active learning refers to the robust research finding that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer is result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction. Accordingly, learning environments are most effective when they elicit effortful cognitive processing from learners and guide them in constructing meaningful relationships between ideas rather than encouraging passive recording of information.

Mayer notes that there are three primary cognitive processes involved in active learning: selecting relevant material to attend to, mentally organizing attended material into meaningful representations, and integrating these representations with prior knowledge. Effective active learning techniques engage learners in one or more of these cognitive activities. The emphasis on appropriate mental processing is critical as physical activity is neither necessary nor sufficient to promote successful learning. In fact, well-designed lectures can promote active learning if they stimulate appropriate cognitive activity (deWinstanley et al.; Clark & Mayer).

Why is active learning important?

Few educational interventions can match the power of active learning when it comes to improving student academic outcomes. Researchers have consistently found that higher student achievement and engagement are associated with instructional methods involving active learning techniques (e.g., Freeman et al.; McDermott et al.). Also, students employing active learning strategies in the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of their learning progress have been found to outperform peers lacking these skills.

And although educators have been encouraged to incorporate active learning strategies into their teaching for decades, little has changed in how we teach students in higher education. Both traditional face-to-face and online instruction continue to be characterized by information transmission models relying almost exclusively on passive lecturing and textbook reading. This instructional approach affords little opportunity for students to engage in the types of active processing required to create enduring and transferable knowledge. In addition, surveys of college student behaviors reveal an overwhelming reliance on passive learning strategies during study (Karpicke et al. 475). Common techniques such as rereading, summarizing, and highlighting, for instance, involve minimal mental effort on the part of students and are significantly less effective than more active alternatives (Dunlosky et al.).

Incorporating active learning into instruction

As Halpern and Hakel observe, the primary take away from research on active learning is that student learning success depends much less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do. So what can we as instructors ask our students to do in order to promote more active learning?

Several active learning techniques are empirically well established and their positive learning effects consistently demonstrated. We describe three of the most powerful here.  

  • Students should be asked to generate connections, questions, and solutions. One of the strongest findings in the learning sciences is that recall and comprehension is greater if learners are frequently required to produce ideas rather than exclusively receiving information from an instructor or textbook (Bertsch et al.).
  • Instruction should dedicate time toward helping learners integrate new information into their preexisting knowledge networks. Students come to an instructional situation with a robust collection of prior beliefs, ideas, and experiences that must be linked to instructional content in order to build the meaningful connections required for enduring knowledge (Ambrose and Lovett).
  • Finally, perhaps the most well-established active learning strategy is repeated and spaced retrieval of learned information. Instruction should include frequent opportunities for learners to engage in effortful recollection of information in order to promote long-term retention and transfer (Karpicke and Blunt).

Where can I learn more about active learning?

For a brief introduction to the idea of active learning and some simple suggestions for incorporating active learning into one’s teaching, see Hammer and Giordano. For an accessible discussion of much of the research mentioned in this paper, in addition to many examples of instructor and student strategies to make learning more active, see Brown, Roedigger, and McDaniel. Finally, for a comprehensive list of 50 active learning techniques that can be employed in many teaching situations, see Angelo and Cross.


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About the Author
Jay Lynch

Jay Lynch, PhD

Jay Lynch has worked at Pearson since 2011. He earned his PhD and MA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his BA at the University of Arizona. Jay has publications in both educational theory and philosophy. His research interests span the field of the learning sciences and he is particularly interested in the topics of desirable difficulties and learning analytics. Jay also has several years of experience applying learning research in the design and development of online courses.



Works Cited

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deWinstanley, Patricia Ann, and Robert A. Bjork. “Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways that Engage Effective Processing.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 89, 2002, pp. 19–31.

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Halpern, Diane F., and Milton D. Hakel. “Applying the Science of Learning.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, vol. 35, no. 4, 2003, pp. 36–41.

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Karpicke, Jeffrey D., Andrew C. Butler, and Henry L. Roediger III. “Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?” Memory, vol. 17, no. 4, 2009, pp. 471–479.

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McDermott, Kathleen B., Pooja K. Agarwal, Laura D’Antonio, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. “Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, vol. 20, no. 1, 2014, pp. 3-21.