The benefits of active learning

Science summer camp 2011

In an article lamenting the reduction in kindergarten of teacher autonomy and child-directed activities, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss quoted early childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige:

We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively – they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

Strauss noted in her article that researcher R. Clarke Fowler found that 

about half the teachers who responded said their [Massachusetts] districts had adopted scripted programs in math and writing – and 60 percent in phonics and spelling – which reduce a teacher’s autonomy in instruction. Seventy-four percent of teachers from high-SES districts and 64 percent from low-SES districts reported their schools had cut the amount of time scheduled for child-directed activities in recent years. 

Given what we know about teacher retention and/or the cognitive development of young children, this is incredibly dismaying (and not limited to Massachusetts). It also seems to be a harsh indictment of school leaders’ inability to enact research-based (or even common sense) best practices.

Of course the benefits of active learning are apparent beyond the kindergarten sector. For instance, the Hewlett Foundation and the American Institutes for Research have been studying ‘deeper learning schools’ in project- and inquiry-based learning networks such as High Tech High, the New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, and the EL Schools. That research indicates that students in these schools generally have higher scores on both traditional state tests and international assessments. They also tend to report greater collaboration skills, greater feelings of belongingness, higher levels of academic engagement, greater motivation to learn, and higher levels of self-efficacy. They also are more likely to graduate high school on time, are more likely to enroll in 4-year colleges and universities (particularly true for 9th grade low achievers), and persist and graduate from college at higher rates. In other words, compared to more traditional schools, these schools ROCK IT on many of the outcomes that we say that we are trying to achieve for our students. Plus there’s a ton of research confirming the power of project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, student agency, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, these findings hold true at the university level as well. For example, when MIT changed its freshman physics class from a model of hundreds of students listening passively to lectures in an auditorium to a model of smaller, interactive classes that emphasized hands-on, collaborative learning, it found that attendance increased and that the failure rate dropped more than 50 percent. Research has shown that “most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning.” Similarly, the 10 or so universities participating in the Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning (SEMINAL) project have begun to initiate active learning methods and collaborative problem-solving into their math courses. They are seeing increases in average test scores, decreases in students earning less than a C, and numerous other benefits. These postsecondary examples confirm research by the National Academy of Sciences that students in active learning environments are “33 percent less likely to fail in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses.”

It’s pretty clear that active learning techniques seem to have multiple payoffs compared to more traditional instructional methods. The question isn’t whether active learning techniques work. The question is why we’re not doing more of them given the rich research supporting their effectiveness.

Image credit: 2011 Science Summer Camp 138, thewomensmuseum

One Response to “The benefits of active learning”

  1. I think Project-based learning provides students with indispensable skills in higher education and allows the student to go beyond just finding answers, and it allows them to expand their minds and think beyond what they do.

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