Is Active Learning All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

iclicker2 on notebook

iclicker2, ready for action. (Photo by M. Hoefnagels)

I just learned of an article that should interest anyone contemplating the power of active learning. The title of the article is Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning in a Random Sample of College Biology Courses, and it appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of CBE Life Sciences Education. I’ll leave you to read the full article if you’d like, but the point is that active learning, in and of itself, doesn’t automatically produce learning gains. The authors write: “Our … most important result was that we did not find an association between the weekly frequency of active-learning exercises used in introductory biology courses and how much students learned about natural selection.”

Why the difference between their result and the large number of previous studies reporting success using active learning methods? The authors attribute the discrepancy to the population of teachers being studied. That is, most studies on active learning use classes taught by instructors with extensive experience in science education, whereas this one was based on a nationwide sampling of biology teachers as a whole. Therefore, the instructor’s skill at using the techniques may be more important than the techniques themselves. The authors conclude: “These results imply active learning is not a quick or easy fix for the current deficiencies in undergraduate science education. Simply adding clicker questions or a class discussion to a lecture is unlikely to lead to large learning gains.”

Upon reflection, this result is not surprising. Think about the pencil, a tool that can be used to write amazing literature or pointless drivel. Or think about the dreadful PowerPoint presentations you have endured — you know, the type that inspired the phrase “Death by PowerPoint.” Used poorly, PowerPoint presentations can be maddeningly dull. But they don’t have to be; in the hands of a charismatic speaker who uses it well, PowerPoint can add excitement and visual interest to any presentation.

Active learning techniques are no different. They can be useful tools, but only when used in conjunction with the other requirements for effective teaching. In my opinion, these are a deep knowledge of (and passion for) the subject; respect for students and their current state of knowledge; and a way to connect with students so that they’ll want to move from “I don’t get it” to “Ah ha! That’s it!”

Like many teachers, I struggle to find questions and activities that help me make that elusive connection with my students. That’s why I take every opportunity to observe and talk to experienced teachers in biology, allied health, and other disciplines. It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone to try something new, but it’s only through practice that you can build the skills necessary to engage your students in real learning. Keep careful notes about what works and what doesn’t work; I suggest typing notes directly into your PowerPoint slides immediately after class, so you’ll see them the next time you teach. And don’t be afraid to make adjustments mid-semester if things don’t work out as planned.


Reference: Andrews, T.M. et al. Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning in a Random Sample of College Biology Courses. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2011 Winter; 10(4): 394–405.

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2 Responses to Is Active Learning All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

  1. Excellent write-up. I definitely love this website.


  2. Pingback: An Excellent Lecture? Yes, It Can Be Done! | Teaching nonmajors biology

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