Active Learning

Guideline: Actively engage students in the learning process.

The data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415., 8410-8415. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Adopting instructional practices that engage students in the learning process is the defining feature of active learning. The importance of student engagement is widely accepted and there is considerable evidence to support the effectiveness of student engagement on a broad range of learning outcomes.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231. Full text available through MIT Libraries

Analysis of the literature suggests that students must do more than just listen:  they must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems.  Most important, to be actively involved, students must engage in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Bonwell, C. & Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, Washington, D.C.


Additional references

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Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-constructive-interactive: A conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1(1), 73-105. doi:10.1111/j.1756-8765.2008.01005.x

Crouch, C. H., Watkins, J., Fagen, A. P., & Mazur, E. (2007). Peer instruction: Engaging students one-on-one, all at once. Research-Based Reform of University Physics, 1(1).

Hatfield, S. R. (1995). The Seven Principles in Action: Improving Undergraduate Education. Anker Publishing Co., Inc., 176 Ballville Rd., PO Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249.

Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266. doi:10.1023/B:EDPR.0000034022.16470.f3

Johnson, D., Johnson, R. & Smith, K., Active Learning:  Cooperation in the College Classroom, Interaction Book Company, Edina, MN. (1991).

Menekse, M., Stump, G. S., Krause, S., & Chi, M. T. H. (2013). Differentiated overt learning activities for effective instruction in engineering classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education, 102(3), 346-374. doi:10.1002/jee.20021

Meyers, C. & Jones, T., Promoting Active Learning:  Strategies for the College Classroom, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA. (1993)

Savin-Baden, M., & Major, C. H. (2004). Foundations of problem-based learning. New York: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Slavin, R., Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1990).

Smith, K. A., Sheppard, S. D., Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2005). Pedagogies of engagement: Classroom-based practices. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 87-101. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00831.x

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su, T. T. (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science, 323(5910), 122-124. doi:10.1126/science.1165919

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research,69(1), 21-51. doi:10.3102/00346543069001021


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