Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research

Article excerpt


This study examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning. It defines the common forms of active learning most relevant for engineering faculty and critically examines the core element of each method. It is found that there is broad but uneven support for the core elements of active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning.

Keywords: active, collaborative, cooperative, problem-based learning


Active learning has received considerable attention over the past several years. Often presented or perceived as a radical change from traditional instruction, the topic frequently polarizes faculty. Active learning has attracted strong advocates among faculty looking for alternatives to traditional teaching methods, while skeptical faculty regard active learning as another in a long line of educational fads.

For many faculty there remain questions about what active learning is and how it differs from traditional engineering education, since this is already "active" through homework assignments and laboratories. Adding to the confusion, engineering faculty do not always understand how the common forms of active learning differ from each other and most engineering faculty are not inclined to comb the educational literature for answers.

This study addresses each of these issues. First, it defines active learning and distinguishes the different types of active learning most frequently discussed in the engineering literature. A core element is identified for each of these separate methods in order to differentiate between them, as well as to aid in the subsequent analysis of their effectiveness. Second, the study provides an overview of relevant cautions for the reader trying to draw quick conclusions on the effectiveness of active learning from the educational literature. Finally, it assists engineering faculty by summarizing some of the most relevant literature in the field of active learning.


It is not possible to provide universally accepted definitions for all of the vocabulary of active learning since different authors in the field have interpreted some terms differently. However, it is possible to provide some generally accepted definitions and to highlight distinctions in how common terms are used.

Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing [1]. While this definition could include traditional activities such as homework, in practice active learning refers to activities that are introduced into the classroom. The core elements of active learning are student activity and engagement in the learning process. Active learning is often contrasted to the traditional lecture where students passively receive information from the instructor.

Collaborative learning can refer to any instructional method in which students work together in small groups toward a common goal [2]. As such, collaborative learning can be viewed as encompassing all group-based instructional methods, including cooperative learning [3-7]. In contrast, some authors distinguish between collaborative and cooperative learning as having distinct historical developments and different philosophical roots [8-10]. In either interpretation, the core element of collaborative learning is the emphasis on student interactions rather than on learning as a solitary activity.

Cooperative learning can be defined as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually [3, 11]. The most common model of cooperative learning found in the engineering literature is that of Johnson, Johnson and Smith [12, 13]. This model incorporates five specific tenets, which are individual accountability, mutual interdependence, faceto-face promotive interaction, appropriate practice of interpersonal skills, and regular self-assessment of team functioning. …