Measuring Actual Learning versus Feeling of Learning in Response to Being Actively Engaged in the Classroom

Measuring Actual Learning versus Feeling of Learning in Response to Being Actively Engaged in the Classroom

Recently, Deslauriers et al published results about student perceptions versus actual performance in an active learning class in PNAS.  Their findings will be of interest to anyone considering incorporating or currently using active learning for their courses and how it will impact not only student learning but also course evaluations.  They found that although student performance on topics covered through active learning led to improved scores, the students felt they learned more in a traditional passive lecture.  The authors suggested interventions to improve student attitudes towards active learning. 

The study was conducted in medium to large enrollment calculus based physics classes with material appropriate for physics majors.  Normally, the class was taught as an interactive lecture based on Stain’s taxonomy. Two topic units (static equilibrium and fluids) were converted to either an entirely passive lecture or an increased amount of active learning.  Two different instructors were brought in for these topics.  Both were highly rated.  For static equilibrium, half of the class was taught with active learning using best practices.  The other half was taught by traditional lecture with all active learning removed.  Later, the groups were switched for the fluids topic.  The group originally taught by active learning, had passive learning but with their same instructor.  The group that started with passive learning was taught with active learning.  At the end of each, the students were asked to answer a survey about how well they learned the material (feeling of learning) and take a multiple choice assessment on the material (test of learning).  The process was repeated in the fall and spring semesters.

More variables that could potentially confound interpretation of the results were controlled than in most previous reports.  All students received identical course content and materials.  The students were randomly assigned to groups that were found to be statistically similar. Each student was exposed to both types of pedagogy with this crossover design.  They had no previous experience with either instructor. 

Both instructors had identical training in the best practices for active learning.  They had comparable experience in traditional lecture.  Neither saw the test of learning. The writers of the test did not see the course materials, only the learning objectives.

The results were rather striking.  In the survey which used a Likert scale, the students responded to the statement “I feel like I learned a great deal from the class.”  The passive group felt they learned more than the active.  However, the active group scored higher on the test of learning. There were other questions in the survey, but the results all correlated with the above statement.  The results were not affected by the topic or the instructor.

Three reasons were proposed for these observations.  A well-presented lecture which was characterized as having high cognitive fluency may mislead students into believing they are learning more.  Novices have poor metacognition and cannot judge how much they are learning.  Students may not realize that struggling with the material in an active classroom is a sign that they are learning effectively.

Since potentially poor attitudes could affect the efficacy of active learning and later course evaluations, interventions were suggested to avoid such problems.  Instructors gave 20 min. presentations on active learning describing how it worked and its reported effectiveness.  It was also explained that their feeling of learning may not correspond to their actual learning.  When this information was provided, 75% of the students stated that they viewed active learning more favorably. An assessment should be provided early so that students can better judge their actual learning.  Students should be encouraged to work hard during their group activities.  Obtain feedback from the students possibly in the form of minute papers.  Finally, respond to student concerns. It was concluded that this should avoid most of the problems with student perceptions.

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