Active Learning as a Key to Success?

Active learning, as the name suggests, is a method of instruction that allows students to actively participate in their learning.  The method of instruction urges teachers to move away from traditional, teacher-centered, and heavily lecture-based methods of instruction, toward student-centered, inquiry, and project-based methods of instruction.  Active learning can be implemented through a variety of means, all of which intend to shift the focus onto the students’ learning.  In recent years, active learning has become a very popular topic of discussion in the field of STEM education, with many professors curious to find out whether or not active learning promotes information retention over traditional teaching methods.

Countless studies have been conducted examining the effectiveness of active learning in the classroom, many of which were compiled in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Freeman et al. (2014) is the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date, consisting of 225 studies that reported data on examination scores or failure rates when comparing traditional lecture-based instruction to active learning instruction in STEM courses (Freeman et al, 2014).  They sought to test the hypothesis that lecturing maximizes learning and course performance, stating that it is important to address this question to see “if scientists are committed to teaching based on evidence rather than tradition.” (Freeman et al, 2014). 

The results of this meta-analysis found that, across the 225 studies, student performance on examinations in active learning sections increased by about 6%, and that a student in a traditional lecture-based class is 1.5 times more likely to fail said class than a student in a class which incorporated active learning strategies (Freeman et al, 2014).  Average failure rates in classes incorporating active learning were 21.8% while classes taught with traditional lecturing had an average of 33.8% (Freeman et al, 2014).  While they found that active learning benefitted students in all classes, the highest impact was made in courses with 50 or fewer students (Freeman et al, 2014).  We have even seen overwhelming evidence in our own classrooms here at Smith; the most recent PHY 117 class utilized the 2COOL learning model and found a 64.8% increase in concept score from the pre-semester test to the post-semester test.  

While implementation of an active learning classroom model into the classroom mainly falls on the professors, students can feel confident that they will succeed when coming into a classroom using this model.  It may seem like a lot of work at first and be a large change from what many students see in their STEM classrooms in high school, however, I can strongly suggest that students fully participate in these active learning classrooms to get the most out of their education.  Once you adapt to an active learning environment, it will feel like second nature to be jumping up to the boards to work on practice problems and formatting your lab assignment to test a physical property.  


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.