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Active Misperceptions

Students wrongly think they learn less in active learning structure

New research suggests that students’ may inaccurately believe and report that they have learned less when they participate in active learning, despite other recent studies indicating that they acquire and retain more in those settings.

Those student attitudes might lead educators to believe it is less effective, experts say, despite contrary evidence, creating a cycle that causes schools to rely on more traditional methods.

The researchers at Harvard found that despite active learning “being recognized as a superior method of instruction in the classroom”, both students and instructors were often resistant to its use, and believed it less effective.

In the study, two groups of students received the same course content, but one participated in an active classroom and the other received lectures.

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments,” the researchers wrote. “This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods.”

The authors found that “extensive research” shows that students “learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment”.  They often believe otherwise, however, because they are accustomed to traditional methods or lecturing because an instructor makes the material compelling.

While the students overwhelmingly reported they preferred lectures for both how it engaged them and what they learned, those in the such traditional setting scored 10 percentage points lower on tests compared to their peers in active learning classrooms.

“Most importantly, these results suggest that when students experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort to signify poorer learning,” the researchers say. That belief can also cause them to be less engaged and learn less and report that they have been less successful, the study found.

Meanwhile, the study also notes that instructors are much more likely to use traditional methods because they lack the time, resources and support to try another approach. However, they also cite student feedback.

“They perceive that students resist active teaching strategies and prefer traditional methods. Indeed, one-third of instructors who try active teaching eventually revert to passive lectures, many citing student complaints as the reason.”

The instructors say students don’t like to interact or to be responsible for their own learning and are concerned that by working collaboratively or on their own it results in “the blind leading the blind”.

The researchers suggest, however, that if teachers take time to explain the approach and its value, students are more likely to embrace it.

Researchers at University of Minnesota also recently reported that instructors would be able to fine tune interaction with students in active learning situations.

“Our findings demonstrated that in an active learning classroom, student faculty contact could be reduced by two-thirds and students achieved learning outcomes that were at least as good, and in one comparison significantly better than, those in a traditional classroom,” they wrote. It also found, contrary to the Harvard research, that once they were more actively involved, student perceptions of the learning environment improved”.

A meta-analysis of 225 studies released about that same time showed that active learning raised grades consistently in STEM courses. 

Active learning can be traced back for generations, according to experts at the University of Wisconsin, who, in have described it and have spelled out a path to its development in an online workshop for schools on active learning and other topics. Those experts also express concern about whether it is being adopted in schools.

“The idea that meaningful learning requires active engagement is an ancient one, and while it is not especially revolutionary, our contemporary educational practices don’t always reflect what we believe or know about active learning.”

They spell out these characteristics of active learning:

  • Learners do more than just listen.
  • Learners engage in structured, exploratory activities that stretch their current levels of knowledge and ability.
  • Learners construct knowledge together, working collaboratively, exchanging ideas, testing, extending, developing, and evaluating each others’ ideas, and sharing instructional responsibilities.
  • Learners devote significant amounts of physical, psychological, and intellectual energy to learning tasks and class projects.\
  • Learner effort is focused more on acquiring and developing skills and competencies than on receiving transmitted information or explanations.
  • Learners are involved in higher-order thinking and making activities (analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, creating, translating).
  • Learners regularly monitor and evaluate their own attitudes and values.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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