An Active Learning shopping list

This guest post comes from Peter Bursens, University of Antwerp.

In a previous post Simon referred to the lavish Cypriot mezze as a metaphor for the discussions during our ECPR workshop on active learning. There is indeed a lot on our plate when it comes to elaborating a systematic research agenda on the effects of active learning. Thanks to the participants we now have at least a shopping list to purchase the necessary ingredients.

The primary aim of the workshop was to go beyond descriptions and good practices of active learning tools in political science. Participants were invited to collect empirical data from their active learning environment and apply appropriate methods to explore the effects on learning outcomes.

We identified five parameters to situate the papers of the workshop: the dependent variable, the independent and intervening variables, methods, data and context.

The dependent variable refers to the different types of learning outcomes. Knowledge, skills and attitudes were often used as broad categories, although these concepts were defined differently according to the theories used (cognitive, affective and regulative outcomes or cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes, to name just two). Other more concrete outcome variables included interest, motivation and self-efficacy. Yet other papers measured effects on civic engagement or even on the motivation to study political science in higher education.

The independent variables often referred to students’ disposition such as gender, age, previous education, previous experience social capital and others. As intervening variables the papers looked at a variety of active learning instruments. Most papers dealt with different types of simulations and role play games, but others used movies, ICT tools, learning approaches such as problem based learning, and video production.

Papers applied a wide variety of methods: some used (advanced) quantitative statistics, others pre- and post-test while some used qualitative tools such as discussion groups, interviews, observations or even diaries. Often the choice of the method followed the ontological positions of the researcher as most were positivist and some were constructivist minded.

Data varied according to the methods. Survey data were most common, although some papers had response or sample issues. Most papers relied on self-reporting, while objective and observational data were more rare. Datasets had a range from a few hundreds to just four students.

Finally, the context varied as well. Higher education students (but different types of programmes and courses, and also extra curricular events) were the most popular. Some also look at the secondary school pupils.

Of course, the workshop only addressed a small number of the potential questions to be asked regarding the effect of active learning environments. Nevertheless, from the workshop, a three-dimensional projection could be derived that can help the political science community to define the puzzles of a future research agenda. A typical research question for a paper within this agenda would be what effect does active learning environment X in context Y have on learning outcome Z. A final observation regarding the research agenda is that political science would benefit from the theories and methods from educational science.

Conclusion? A lot to digest for the workshop participants. More guests at the table would be warmly welcomed!

Nostimo fagito!