Landing : Athabascau University

Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning in a Random Sample of College Biology Courses

Very well conducted research showing that, in the study sample, active learning does not produce any significant gains compared with the inactive variety. What is most interesting is the reason the authors discover for this, which fits perfectly with the model of soft/hard technologies that I have been developing and writing about in my forthcoming book on how learning technologies work. In brief, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. Softer constructivist methods are extremely effective if the teacher uses them skillfully but, if not, they are pretty hopeless and may be positively harmful. Most studies of active learning have involved researchers who know what they are doing and engage with passion and enthusiasm as well as expertise, whereas this study simply grabs a random sample or people using active learning methods in their classrooms. The one and possibly the only benefit of harder formulaic methods of teaching is that they are rather more resilient to bad teachers (and/or those that do not have enough time or energy for the task as a result of other pressures). 

There are other good insights in this paper - it is well worth reading if you have an interest in education.


  • This article made me think of other kinds of educational research I should be reading up on as a learning designer.

    I haven't taken biology since high school, but I am aware of the three concepts the "cheetah question" was supposed to activate (the existence of phenotypic variation within a population, the heritability of that variation, and differential reproductive success among individuals). When I read the question, my mind went immediately to the third concept, and when I saw the rubric I realized that for me the first two were presupposed (or is it entailed? implied?) by the third. I probably would have gotten 33% on this question even though I essentially knew the answer.

    I can recall analagous situations both as a teacher and learner where I did not spell things out that seemed obvious in the context, and I should have, either to get full points on an assessment or to get the pertinent information across to students. Here are some issues relating to my job that this article brings to mind:

    • Experts tend to forget what it's like to be a beginning learner. They tend to assume the foundational truths when they discuss a topic in their field. Making these explicit for beginners lays the necessary foundation for further learning. Although textbooks usually lay these matters out clearly, to a beginner without strong decoding skills, it's all blah, blah, blah.
    • Learners need clear scaffolding. Learning designers are especially contemptuous of rote learning, but if the entire class recited the three concepts in unison at the beginning of several classes and then spent time every class applying them to various examples, there is a good chance that most of them would answer that question successfully. For many learners, it's not enough to repeat an idea multiple times or present it in several scenarios where the idea is implicit—they need the meta commentary from the instructor that says, "This is a foundational concept and this is why—now tell me in your own words why this concept is important."
    • Learners need to keep developing communication skills as part of their learning any subject matter. This includes decoding—reading/listening/viewing to find the main points of an article or podcast, which means understanding a number of implicit conventions used by various kinds of writers—as well as encoding—spelling out the implied/presupposed information to make a complete argument.
    • What counts as active learning may often not be effective because of its piecemeal nature. Putting activities in a context is important. When I think of effective active learning, I think of coherent projects that are carefully designed to put into practice key concepts and, ideally, teach some transferrable collaboration skills involving fellow learners.

    I don't know if I got what you had hoped we would from this article, but I liked it. Smile

    - Mary Pringle

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing February 26, 2013 - 9:27am

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