According to a 2019 study of active learning in the classroom (Deslauriers, McCarty, Miller, Callaghan, & Kestin, 2019), students may think they are learning more from a passive activity such as uninterrupted lecture or reading than they really are. A page full of notes may well feel like a far more concrete advance in learning than a series of poll questions does, after all. On the other side of that coin, students may feel impatient with active learning assignments such as think-pair-share or muddiest point discussions, precisely because such activities require them to question and actively process information rather than simply memorize or record it.
The study compared students’ self-reported perception of learning with their actual learning as demonstrated by assessments. The setting was a pair of large-enrollment introductory college physics courses taught using active instruction for one and passive instruction for the other. The lectures in both were delivered by experienced and highly rated instructors. Both groups received identical class content and handouts, students were randomly assigned, and the instructor made no effort to persuade students of the benefit of either method. Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on existing learning research), but their perception of learning, while generally positive, rated lower than that of their peers in the passive learning environment.
These results highlight the importance of preparing and coaching students early in the semester for active instruction, and of explaining to students how they will benefit from active instruction--even if it doesn’t always feel like they are! Giving that context is an important step in ensuring that students put full effort into your active learning course activities, rather than resenting the extra time and effort they take or the way they may seem to interrupt or break the flow of information. Consider devoting some time to explaining the reasons behind your chosen course format and activities during the first week, and reinforcing those reasons again when you introduce or assign active learning activities. Even a few words about how “this activity will help you process and retain the information better” can go a long way!
If you would like to think about how to best frame active learning to your students, or would like to discuss adding an active element to your course, please feel free to reach out to us at LSATSLearningTeachingConsultants@umich.edu or schedule a consultation. We’re happy to help!
Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019, September 24). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://www.pnas.org/content/116/39/19251