Date posted: December 9, 2012

“Active Learning?  You must be joking, there’s no time for entertainment – I’ve too much content to cover.”

Geoff Petty

We have all heard such views in staff rooms, yet in official circles active learning remains the orthodoxy. Professors queue up to insist upon it, inspectors require it, and conference speakers chant its praises.  Many of us also remember long lectures about its effectiveness during our teacher training!  Yes, we all know the theory — but does it actually work in practice?

Many researchers have asked this question, and have tried a ‘let’s suck it and see’ approach to answer it.  These are rigorous control group studies with real teachers in real schools and colleges.

Hundreds, or even thousands of students are divided between:

  • an ‘experimental group’ which is taught with active methods and
  • a ‘control group’: which is taught the same material without active methods.

The control and experimental groups are carefully composed to be identical in their mix of ability, social background, and so on.  The control and experimental groups are taught for the same length of time, by the same teachers, or by teachers of the same ability, and the students are tested to see which group has learned best.

Active Learning adds a grade and a half to achievement.
Professors John Hattie and Robert Marzano have independently used careful statistical methods to average the findings of many thousands of the most rigorous studies on active learning.  Their findings show that, for the best active methods, if you put a student in the experimental group, then on average, they will do more than a grade and a half better than if they had been placed in the control group.

The time the teacher has to teach the topic is not a factor here.  Remember that the groups taught with active learning methods were taught for the same amount of time as the control group.  While the experimental group was engaged in the active learning methods, the control group was receiving more content and fuller explanations from their teacher.  But the control group learned less.

Many teachers say active learning would be great ‘if they had the time’.  But the research shows that if you make the time for effective active learning by doing less didactic teaching, then your students will do better.  It may seem strange not to be able to say everything you know about the topic you are teaching, but it won’t help if you do.  You know too much!

Active learning works best at every academic level. Peter Westwood, summarizing research on how best to teach students with learning difficulties argued for highly structured, intensive, well directed, active learning methods.

Well if Active Learning works, why don’t more teachers use it?

  1. We tend to teach the way we were taught ourselves, rather than in the way that works best.
  2. We know too much, and rather enjoy explaining.  So when you set activities, listen carefully to learners as they work, this can be even more enjoyable and less hard work than explaining, and the feedback is very informative.

In study after study of this type, active learning produced much better learning.

Download the study report :


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