Students Like Active Learning Less-But Learn More

Title: Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom

Authors:  Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, and Greg Kestin

First Author’s Institution: Harvard University

Journal: PNAS September 24, 2019, 116 (39), 19251-19257

What is active learning?

Practicing scientists identify problems, work with each other, and spend their time actively wrestling with scientific challenges. Science students, however, have historically spent a lot of time listening to lectures where an expert explains the concepts they need to know. However, students don’t seem to learn well with this teaching method. Research has shown that many college physics students were able to replicate solving the problems they had seen on class, but were not able to answer questions on the conceptual underpinnings of the problems they were solving.

In response to this research, many instructors moved towards strategies to get students actively engaged in what they were learning. Instructors using these active learning strategies, might ask students to stop and answer a question in between a lecture or might give students problems to work on in small groups instead of giving a lecture. Research has generally supported that students in classrooms that have active learning components do better than students in more traditional classes. However, many teachers worry about student dislike and pushback when they use active-learning strategies. This paper looked at the performance of students in an introductory physics class who experienced class periods both in a traditional lecture format and in an active learning format. The study also measured how to students felt about each type of teaching.

Study Design

The authors selected an introductory calculus-based physics at Harvard University. They ran the study twice, once in the fall and once in the spring semester, with 65 and 92 students respectively. For the first twelve weeks of the fifteen week semester, all students were in the same classroom and were taught using lectures, demonstrations, and discussion questions throughout the lecture. Then, to cover the lesson on statics topics on a second lesson on fluids topics, students were split into two groups.

One of the two groups learned the statics lesson with a fully active lecture. Students were given a problem and asked to work in small groups to solve it. Before the end of class, students were shown how to answer the questions. The second group was shown how to solve the problem by the instructor and did not work in groups—no active learning strategies were used. For the second lesson on fluids, the two groups switched and group 2 used active learning while group 1 didn’t. All worksheets and problems were the same for both groups, and, because the groups switched teaching strategies between the statics and fluids lessons, all students experienced both kinds of teaching. Different instructors were used for each topic and neither instructor was the same as the instructor who taught the first 12 weeks of the course. All the teachers would well trained in lecturers and active learning strategies.

After each of the two lessons students took a test on the material. They also completed a survey that asked them how much they enjoyed the lecture, how much they felt they learned, how effective they felt the professor were and how much they wish all their physics courses were taught like the lesson they just saw. All survey questions were on a five point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” For the test on the material, neither the instructor for group 1 or group 2 saw the test before they taught the students.


On the post-lesson quiz students in the passive learning condition received an average score of a bit less than 65% of available points in the static test and a bit more 55% of the available points in the fluids test. Students did better in the lesson they were in the active learning class for. The average score for the active-learning statics lesson was a bit more than 0.7 out of 1 and close to 0.65 out of 1 for the active-learning fluids lessons.

Figure 1: Student performance and feelings of learning on both the fluids and statics lesson. Photos used under (CC BY-NC-ND)

Although they performed better under active-learning conditions, students generally preferred the traditional lecture. For both the static and fluid conditions students rated the traditional lecture higher when asked how much they enjoyed the lecture, how much they felt they learned, how effective they felt the professor were and how much they wish all their physics courses were taught like the lesson they just saw. The authors suggest that this may be because students listening to a clear well-taught lecture may think their understanding is as clear as the logic of the lecture. Students in the active-learning lessons also felt they were more disjointed and less fluent than the lectures, since students often struggle as they work through problems themselves. This causes the students to prefer these lessons less.


The authors of this paper suggest that students may be more willing to embrace active learning-based teaching strategies as they experience them more through the course of the semester. They recommend instructors introduce these instructional strategies early in the semester and remind students that being confused and exerting cognitive effort when learning new material is associated with better learning.

Additionally, authors suggest that instructors administer a quiz early in the semester so students who feel that active-learning creates a disjointed or disfluent classroom are able to verify that they are learning. Finally, the paper recommends instructors regularly collect feedback from students so that they can address student concerns during the class.

Header images from Derek Bruff used under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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