Objections to Active Learning

If you think everybody’s pretty much on board with the idea of active learning, think again. I was surprised to find an article that in its opening paragraph describes active learning as “a philosophy and movement that portends trouble for the future of higher education and the American professoriate.” (p. 23)

The author acknowledges that active learning is a movement and describes how faculty will experience it—through workshops that address how to incorporate writing and discussion in large classes. “You’ll also be exposed to vast numbers of books and articles promoting active learning, including an international journal with the straightforward title of Active Learning in Higher Education. The movement has thus acquired academic and professional legitimacy.” (p. 24)

Recognizing the origins of active learning in theories of education like that proposed by Dewey, the author notes, “There are some good ideas among the reams of articles and books about active learning.” (p. 26). But he contends active learning is a smoke screen designed to cover deeper problems in higher education—like class size, where if active learning principles are used, they can make the large class seem smaller and therefore make large classes more likely.

The logic is convoluted, and the case supporting a connection between increasing class sizes and the interest in active learning rests more on correlation than causation. It is not substantiated with evidence. Even more distressing is the author’s ignorance of the research that justifies approaches that engage students in learning. The author makes one reference (two studies) and then objects to educational jargon. Would you presume to read a research journal in physics, sociology—name a discipline—and then decry the author’s use of language?

Educational research, like that in countless other fields, is not written to be read by outsiders, and yes, that does relate to why so much research has so little impact on practice, but that’s a different problem. The point here is that the research on active learning is immense, and its implications for practice have been ably translated (see Prince, M. (2004, July). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 223–231).

I know; subscribers to a newsletter like this don’t need to be persuaded. But we do need to be reminded that much of what we believe and take for granted is still up for grabs in other sectors of the academy. Reading an article like this behooves and prepares us. You never know when you might be called upon to answer objections like these.

Reference: Mattson, K. (2005, January–February). Why “active learning” can be perilous to the profession. Academe, 23–26.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, March 2006.