November 4th, 2008

Active Learning and Student Persistence


I’m picking up where I left off with the previous blog entry. I’m still thinking about the evidence for active learning—those pedagogical practices that engage and involve students in learning processes directly. I’ve also been thinking about the faculty predilection (not at all universal but still reasonably widespread) to bad mouth educational research, or less flagrantly, to benignly neglect it.

Like research in every field, educational research is not uniformly excellent. Some is awful, a lot more is average and some is outstanding. The outstanding stuff explores relevant questions, uses rigorous (and often creative) methodological approaches and comes up with findings that implicate practice. Perhaps those who do this research would not agree with those criteria, but from my practice side of the fence this is the kind of research that makes a difference.

One of my favorite higher education researchers is John Braxton, a professor in the Peabody College (of education) at Vanderbilt University. I’ve highlighted much of his research in the newsletter. It is some of the very best. I also admire John because of his commitment to connecting research and practice.

John and a group of colleagues are out with a new study titled, “The Role of Active Learning in College Student Persistence.” Here’s the finding: “Faculty use of active learning practices plays a significant role in the retention of first-year college students.” It’s a finding that is supported by previous research, some completed by John and some by others. Here’s the explanation of why. “The pattern of findings of this study tends to indicate that active learning practices that faculty use shape in students the perception that their college or university is committed to their welfare in general and their growth and development in particular, a perception that leads to their sense of social integration. The greater a student’s degree of social integration, the greater is his or her level of subsequent commitment to the college or university. The greater the student’s level of subsequent commitment to the college or university, the greater is his or her likelihood of
persistence in the college of initial choice.” (p. 81)

So active learning does more than just enhance a variety of desirable learning outcomes. It helps keep beginning students in college.

When someone questions whether active learning makes a difference, we can respond affirmatively that it makes a big difference. Research, including some really good research, supports that assertion.

Reference: Braxton, J. M., Jones, W. A., Hirschy, A. S., and Hartley, H. V., III (2008). The role of active learning in college persistence. In, J. M. Braxton, ed. The Role of the Classroom in College Student Persistence: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 115. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
—Maryellen Weimer