Learn By Doing


In 2015, cognitive scientists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) sought to better understand whether “watching to learn” using video lectures — a popular approach used in many Massively Online Open Courses — produced differences in learning outcomes when compared to courses that stressed interactivity (a “learn by doing” approach).

“Learn by doing” is a course design methodology that emphasizes giving students frequent practice opportunities and feedback to help master learning objectives. In their research results, published in the Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale, CMU researchers concluded that having students “watch to learn” offers limited value. The key takeaway was that students who do activities in fact learn more than students who only watch video or read pages. The researchers summarized their findings as “The Doer Effect” — more doing yields better learning.

What does this research tell us about digital learning? First, engagement matters. The research out of CMU shows that “learning by doing” has six times the effect size over reading aloneSecond, increasing engagement by using formative practice activities does lead to student learning gains.

Using learning science research like “the doer effect” to better understand which learning methods yield the best learning gains has clear application for course designers, educators, and students. By designing courses that provide students with more opportunities to practice as they learn, and by enacting good course policies that encourage and motivate students to “do” the practice, educators (and course designers) can significantly improve learning outcomes.