Why do students feel they learn less with active learning, when they actually learn more?

Active learning – a method that consists of active participation in subject matter, such a group activities or consistent instructor/student engagement –  has been proven to be more effective at conveying knowledge than passive learning methods in the classroom. Yet despite this, many higher education courses still prefer a passive teaching method, in part because students typically feel as if they have learned more in passive environments, despite evidence showing otherwise.

To uncover the reasons behind the discrepancy between “actual learning” and “feeling of learning,” a 2019 study compared two physics classrooms at Harvard University, one which was instructed to teach using only passive methods and the other only active. (While most classrooms prioritize passive learning methods, many do incorporate at least some forms of active learning.)

The researchers measured both actual learning and learning perception in students, finding that almost all felt that they learned more in a passive classroom, even as students in active learning environments in fact performed better during post-lesson evaluations.

The authors of the study propose that a factor behind student’s perceptions is in a key misunderstanding: that increased academic struggle during active learning methods (for example, a teacher might have students to come to their own solution to a problem first, rather than immediately walking them through how to solve it) means that the student is failing at learning, when in fact it is a sign of more effective learning.

The study also suggests that perceptions are in part due to unfamiliarity with active learning methods: 65% students in the active learning course significantly improved their feelings on active learning methods by the end of the semester.

Proposed ways in which students can get the most out of active learning while reducing the perception gap between actual and perceived learning include having instructors provide evidence of active learning effectiveness at the beginning of the course; offer early evaluations for students to gauge their own progress; and reinforce throughout the course that increased cognitive effort means that students are learning more, rather than less.

Read more about the study and its findings here.