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Active Learning: how is it received by students?

Active learning is a term you probably come across frequently if you work in Higher Education. Extensive research shows that students learn more when they are actively engaged, but the question is how is it received by students?

A recent article by Louis Deslauriers et al. explains why students’ perception of active learning is often negative even when results show they are learning more.

“Students who are unfamiliar with intense active learning in the college classroom may not appreciate that the increased cognitive struggle accompanying active learning is actually a sign that the learning is effective.” (Deslauriers et al. 2019)

The authors’ highlight that talking to students about what to expect in an ‘active’ class can help. They also note that the more students experience active learning, the more they perceive it to be beneficial.

Since 2018 at VU, all first-year and now all undergraduate students study in Block Mode. With small classes of 35 and no lectures, active learning is all our students know. Similar to the findings of this research, we have seen that those who start their degree in Block Mode expect active and engaged learning and see the benefits. While those who have started their degree in traditional lecture mode can find it difficult at first to adjust. Hear what students have to say about it in this video:

“When students experienced confusion and increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they perceived this disfluency as a signal of poor learning, while in fact the opposite is true.” (Deslauriers et al. 2019)

The results are pointing towards the importance of not only preparing but coaching students early in the semester (or block!) Whilst this article is focused on physics education, the authors point out that the principle findings should apply to all disciplines.

Deslauriers, L( 1 ), McCarty, LS( 1,2 ), Callaghan, K( 1 ), Kestin, G( 1 ) & Miller, K( 3 ) n.d., ‘Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 116, no. 39, pp. 19251–19257, viewed 14 August 2020, <>.