Active Learning: Challenging Perceptions for Better Student Success

Students in an active learning classroom. The focal point is a group of three students in pod chairs working together.

Despite numerous studies showing the effectiveness of active learning in improving students’ performance, its actual adoption in classrooms remains limited.

In a recent episode of the Teaching for Student Success podcast, host Steven Robinow discussed a study that aimed to measure students’ perception of learning when active learning is toggled on and off. Louis Deslauriers, Director of Science Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Senior Preceptor in Physics, and his colleagues at Harvard University found that students preferred traditional lectures but performed better in active learning environments.

Deslauriers observed that students often feel they learn more in traditional lecture formats, as more materials can be covered. However, he argued that this is a misperception rooted in a cognitive bias. “In a well-constructed, student-centered environment, students have to struggle with content. That struggle, in turn, forces the learning and leads to a much deeper understanding than they would get from a fluent lecture.”

The study suggests that both students and faculty need to understand the value of active learning. Deslauriers recommends that from day one, students should be informed about the benefits of active learning, even if it can be frustrating at times. He stated, “You just talk to them about how these notions of perceived fluency will influence how much you think that you’re learning.”

Faculty members must also change their perceptions and overcome cognitive dissonance. Active learning can have a significant impact on students who are struggling academically. Deslauriers explained, “We’ve got students who are failing because we’re not providing the environment they need to succeed.”

Embracing active learning strategies in higher education classrooms can help bridge the gap and improve overall student success.