When Active Learning Doesn't Work

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. Benjamin Franklin


Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism makes intuitive sense; if students are more deeply involved and engaged they will learn more deeply. That sentiment is prevalent in higher education where many instructors use active learning strategies intended to involve students more deeply in the learning process. The term “active” implies that students learn by doing, whether the activity involves interactions among students, hands-on experiences, or broad approaches to learning such as problem-based or cased-based learning. As these techniques proliferate, it is worth asking why some active learning experiences are better than others; why some lead to deeper learning and others simply result in action without learning.  

What makes for an effective, active learning experience and what makes for an active non-learning experience? In When Students Learn (or Don't Learn) from Active Learning Experiences, I describe a study in which middle school students who were actively engaged in a project, learned relatively little. As usual the devil is in the design, and researchers re-designed the learning experience with an extraordinary result. The researchers created a project that scaffolded purposeful, analytical thinking. And, students responded with enthusiasm and achieved much deeper understanding of the subject matter.