Research Minute: Actual vs. Feeling of Learning in Active Learning


A new study out of Harvard University aims to shed light on why many students are resistant to active learning. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, measured students’ actual learning versus their self-reported perception and feelings of learning using a highly controlled randomized experimental study.

The authors compared passive instructional methods (i.e., purely lecture) with active methods (i.e., interactive lecture combined with small group activities) in large-enrollment introductory college physics courses taught across two semesters. During two consecutive class meetings in week 12 of the course, students were randomly assigned to one of two groups: group A attended a passive lecture for class 1 followed by an active lesson for class 2, while group B attended an active lesson for class 1 followed by passive lecture for class 2. For both groups, all students received the same course content and materials, a control that had not been implemented in previous studies—potentially confounding those results, according to the authors. At the end of both class meetings, students (n=149) completed a survey about their perceptions of the class as well as their feeling of learning, followed by a multiple-choice test of learning.

Fig. 1. A comparison of performance on the TOL and FOL responses between students taught with a traditional lecture (passive) and students taught actively for the statics class. Fig. 2. A comparison of performance on the TOL and FOL responses between students taught with a traditional lecture (passive) and students taught actively for the fluids class.

In summary, the authors found that “students in the active classroom learn more [almost half an SD higher, P < 0.001] ... but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments.” Why the disconnect? Since active learning requires students to exert more cognitive effort, the authors say the students took that to mean they didn’t learn as much, which could ultimately negatively impact their motivation and engagement. The authors encourage faculty who adopt active learning pedagogies to intervene early in the semester by preparing students for active instruction and sharing with them its benefits. Two of the authors’ other conclusions are worth highlighting:

  • “It is reasonable to expect that students who are less well prepared than those in our study [i.e. Harvard students] would show even larger discrepancies between actual learning and feelings of learning.”
  • “These results also suggest that student evaluations of teaching should be used with caution as they rely on students’ perceptions of learning and could inadvertently favor inferior passive teaching methods over research-based active pedagogical approaches—a superstar lecturer could create such a positive [feeling about learning] that students would choose those lectures over active learning.”

Minor methodological issues aside, this study and its findings are an important contribution to the literature describing the benefits and challenges associated with active learning environments.

Sign up for email updates

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.