Active Learning That Distracts from Learning

Active learning that distracts from learning

Because I teach mixed demographic courses, I often look out at a sea of distracted and unmotivated faces. Motivation is a large part of learning (Pintrich and deGroot, 2003). So, I use active learning activities, such as think-pair-share, to not only motivate students (Marbach-Ad et al., 2001), but also to enhance student learning (Bonwell and Eison, 1919; Freeman et al., 2014). If I’m being honest, active learning also has the added perk of distracting students from the monotony of my voice. Yet, in the past few years, I have begun to wonder if I have taken it too far? Am I simply using active learning as a way of keeping bored students active?

Recently, I created a set of tactile active learning activities developed to capture my kinesthetic learners. These activities range from using balloons to work on why cells are small to playing with PVC pipes to feel the rigidity of a microtubule.

I have been happily entering the classroom with my tactile-inspired kits being absolutely certain that I would engage students and enhance their learning. However, I have noticed a rather curious and alarming trend.  When I implement my kinesthetic activities, more students are missing the corresponding test question. For example, on one particular question about cell size, when I used my balloon activity, I went from 53 ± 3% students getting it right to 35 ± 4% students getting it right. So instead of capturing more students, I lost upwards of 15% of them.

This led me to ask the question: in my attempt to capture and motivate students, am I distracting them from learning? I feel that I use active learning appropriately because I align learning activities with well-constructed learning goals and/or critical inquiry ideals. Therefore, I believe that I am engaging unmotivated students rather than simply keeping them busy. However, I do wonder if by engaging them in the activity, I am taking their attention away from learning the content.

Noticing this trend in my assessment outcomes has been eye-opening. For now, I watch for activities that are negatively impacting student success on assessments. When I notice that the activity distracts from student learning, I dial back on the active learning and work on capturing student attention prior to teaching them the content. Based on this experience, I continuously remind myself that engaging students doesn’t always mean that the engagement is useful for learning the material at hand. In my attempt to have an enjoyable, maybe even fun, class, I may be sacrificing student attention and learning.


Bonwell, C. C., and J.A. Eison. 1991. Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and M.P. Wenderoth. 2014. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 8410-8415.

Marbach-Ad G., Seal O. and P. Sokolove. 2001. Student attitudes and recommendations on active learning: a student-led survey gauging course effectiveness. J. Coll. Sci. Teach, 30, 434–438.

Pintrich P.R. and E.V. De Groot. 2003. A Motivational Science Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 667-686.

Adriana LaGier is associate professor of biology at Grand View University.