Evidence of Active Learning's Effectiveness

While traditional lectures are efficient at delivering information from one (faculty) to many (students), they are often inefficient at engaging students to create meaning, especially at higher levels of cognition.

See Bloom’s Taxonomy of Knowledge for more information on levels of cognition.

Lectures often allow students to passively take in information and allow faculty to passively accept that students understand what they are saying. Further, many abilities such as analyzing, comparing, creating and problem solving require students to practice doing something, and only by working with content will students begin to understand what they do and do not know. Traditionally, students are expected to do this work at home.

While there are several reasons why this model is not ideal, the main issue is that students need help when they are working with new content and trying to change their conceptions. This is best done with guidance from an expert and is a more valuable use of faculty and student time during a class. 

Evidence of its effectiveness

Evidence that active learning is more effective than lecture for helping students learn stretches back more than twenty-five years (Bonwell, 1991). One of the largest studies comparing active learner-centered classes and traditional classes observed 6,542 physics students from 62 introductory courses (Hake, 1998). Hake found that courses with no interactive engagement had average normalized student gains of .23 while courses with active learning had average student gains of .48 (almost two standard deviations above traditional scores).

Fig. 1. This figure (Hake, 1998) graphically compares student performance in courses with interactive engagement versus traditional courses and shows significantly larger learning gains for courses with interactive engagement relative to traditional courses.

Further, and what’s perhaps most telling from this chart (Fig. 1), is that the worst interactive engagement courses did better than almost all traditional courses.

A meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing active learning versus lecture-centered course designs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines found that students in traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning (Freeman, 2014). Moreover, Freeman found that student performance on exams, concept inventories or other assessments increased by about half a standard deviation when some active learning was included in course design. These results were unchanging across STEM disciplines.

Another review (Michael, 2006) examined evidence of student-centered active learning approaches from a variety of disciplines such as cognitive and educational psychology. Michael found support for learner-centered instruction and that learning involves the active construction of meaning by the learner. He also found that individuals are likely to learn more when they learn with others and that meaningful learning is facilitated by students needing to articulate explanations to their peers. This sharing of information, which happens in learner-centered environments, forces students to better understand and actively construct what they believe in order to convey it to others.