Does Active Learning actually work?

I’m continuing my on-going project to find stupid places to write blog-posts, I’m coming to you from 10668m, somewhere over the Austrian Alps, heading to the ECPR’s Joint Sessions in Nicosia.

Once I’m there, I’ve got three full days of discussing whether Active Learning actually works, with a workshop of colleagues from across the EU. Reading through the draft papers makes for much reflection.

And with that in mind, this is a preliminary set of thoughts, which I’ll revisit next week once we’ve had those discussions.

On a personal note, it’s nice to see my various articles being cited, although less positively it’s mostly in the context of how little we know about this subject: too much still rests on the “I tried it and I liked it” approach (to use one colleague’s citation of Chin).

The challenges appear to be three-fold.

Firstly, we’re not clear what the dimensions of any benefits might be. Various authors point to specific gains – knowledge, skills or interest being typical elements – but far fewer try to explore every possibility.

Clearly practicality comes into it: even to administer a brief and simple questionnaire is troublesome enough, let alone a systematic and encyclopaedic one. Plus the latter doesn’t exist, that I’m aware of.

Common sense suggests that we do know the important effects, because they’re noticeable, and because we ourselves have often experienced them through participation in active learning environments. But common sense might also be wrong.

Secondly, there’s a clear tension between the objective measurement of knowledge or ability and the subjective evaluation of such by the participants. Again this makes us wonder about the dimensions of what’s important (or consequential), but it also speaks to the difference between teaching and learning.

Quite aside from the existence of any difference between the objective and subjective views, there is also the question of whether it matters: if participants feel they have gained something, does it have to be the same thing as the instructor/facilitator/designer intended? One might well say ‘yes’ if it relates to knowledge, but if we consider active learning to be conducive to improving participants’ self-confidence and self-reflection, then gains in knowledge might come in by a back-door, or with a delay.

Finally, there’s still a comparator problem. It’s one thing to find learning gains from active learning using pre- and post-tests, but it’s another to show that gain is more than can be achieved by other means.

In particular, the huge difficulty in identifying control groups is only amplified by the dimension problem and the arguably-intrinsic subjectivity issue outlined above. If you don’t know what to control for, then things become more problematic.

So, all gloomy then?

Not really, because – as the papers for our workshop show – there is progress on all these fronts.

My hope is that by having the time and space to explore these issues, we’ll be able to work out the most productive ways to advance our work and our understanding.

Let’s see what comes of it.

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