The evidence that active learning approaches help students learn more effectively than transmissionist approaches in which instructors rely on “teaching by telling” is robust and stretches back more than thirty years (see, for example, Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Here, we will focus on two reports that review and analyze multiple active learning studies.
Freeman and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing “constructivist versus exposition-centered course designs” in STEM disciplines (Freeman et al., 2014). They included studies that examined the design of class sessions (as opposed to out-of-class work or laboratories) with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing, comparing failure rates and student scores on examinations, concept inventories, or other assessments. They found that students in traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning (odds ratio of 1.95, Z = 10.4, P<<0.001). Further, they found that on average, student performance on exams, concept inventories, or other assessments increased by about half a standard deviation when some active learning was included in course design (weighted standardized mean difference of 0.47, Z = 9.781, P<<0.001)
These results were consistent across disciplines: they observed no significant difference in the effects of active learning in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, math, physics, and psychology courses. They performed two analyses examining the possibility that the results were due to a publication bias (i.e., a bias toward publishing studies with larger effects), finding that there would have to be a large number of unpublished studies that observed no difference between active learning and lecturing to negate their findings: 114 reporting no difference on exam or concept inventory performance and 438 reporting no difference in failure rate. The authors conclude that the evidence for the benefits of active learning are very strong, stating that, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”
These results support other, earlier reviews (e.g., Hake, 1998; Prince, 2004; Springer et al., 1999). In one such review, Ruiz-Primo and colleagues examined published studies examining the effects of active learning approaches in undergraduate biology, chemistry, engineering and physics courses (Ruiz-Primo et al., 2011). They identified 166 studies that reported an effect size when comparing the effects of an innovation (i.e., active learning approaches) to traditional instruction that did not include the innovation. Overall, they found that inclusion of the active learning approaches improved student outcomes (mean effect size = 0.47), although there are important caveats to consider. First, the authors coded the active learning activities as conceptually oriented tasks, collaborative learning activities, technology-enabled activities, inquiry-based projects, or some combination of those four categories, and important differences existed within the categories (for example, technology-assisted inquiry-based projects on average did not produce positive effects). Second, more than 80% of the studies included were quasi-experimental rather than experimental, and the positive benefits (average effect size = 0.26) were lower for the experimental studies in which students were randomly assigned to a treatment group. Finally, many of the studies did not control for pre-existing knowledge and abilities in the treatment groups. Nonetheless, the review does provide qualified support for the inclusion of active learning approaches in instruction.