While hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have concluded that students taught in an active learning environment are significantly more likely to outperform peers who are in classes taught more traditionally, full adoption of active learning practices remains far from the norm.
In a recent episode of the Teaching for Student Success podcast, host Steven Robinow spoke with Louis Deslauriers about a study he and four colleagues at Harvard did to test the value of active learning. Deslauriers, director of science teaching and learning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and a senior preceptor in physics, and his colleagues measured students’ perception of learning when active learning is toggled on and off.
The study: Robinow, who launched his podcast in October 2021, is a former faculty member at the Mānoa campus of the University of Hawai‘i. As he notes in the episode, Deslauriers’s research caught his eye because of its control design and insights into both the student perspective and “how faculty might help students better understand the benefits of a novel and challenging student-centered classroom.”
In the study, run twice in two subsequent years, students were randomly assigned to an active or traditional treatment of teaching for one class session, taught in separate rooms by instructors trained specifically for the activity. Then they were tested on what they had learned. In the following session, the assignments got reversed.
Students in the passive group reported enjoying the lecture more and felt that the instructor was more effective at teaching. Yet in the test of learning, those in the active group did better.
Breaking down student perceptions: In teaching physics, Deslauriers shared, he has indeed noticed that more materials can be covered via traditional lecture format and that student feedback will indicate they feel like they learn more when he lectures more. But he sees that as a misperception—a cognitive bias indicative of the fact that students are unaware of how people really learn.
In a well-constructed, student-centered environment, he added, students have to struggle with content. That struggle, in turn, forces the learning and leads to a much deeper understanding than they would get from a fluent lecture.
Takeaways for faculty members: Deslauriers’s paper offers recommendations for faculty who want to have student-centered classrooms, including that from day one students need help understanding the value of active learning. “You just talk to them about how these notions of perceived fluency will influence how much you think that you’re learning,” he said. During active learning, students are reminded of what they don’t know and that can be frustrating.
“The key is training students that this is going to be OK, this is going to be better,” added Robinow.
That can mean changing faculty perceptions, too. “As undergraduate students, we all had some experiences where we felt we learned a lot from lectures,” said Deslauriers. “That’s why when, when you’re our age and you lecture traditionally, and someone comes in and says, ‘Hey, look at all the evidence—active learning is actually more effective,’ there’s this cognitive dissonance.”
While A and B students tend to be able to adapt to any kind of learning environment, active learning can make a huge difference to C and D students. “We’ve got students who are failing,” said Deslauriers, “because we’re not providing the environment they need to succeed.”