Active engagement = better understanding. Doesn’t it?

I read the introduction to this chapter and thought, ‘I know where this is going…’, but I was wrong…. The results of a well-designed study seeking to report the benefits of active learning challenged my expectations. Whilst the author, Martin Karas, found that active learning did indeed lead to higher levels of engagement, it did not affect knowledge retention and understanding. This I found surprising and wanted to read more as to why that had been the case in this study.

What I specifically liked about this study is that three activities were trialled in three different seminars which began with a 15-30 minute lecture so comparisons could be made between active and passive learning. The exercises, all based around political science concepts, comprised a debate, group analysis activity and cut-up cards to distinguish between various political science ideologies. A sound rationale based on well-grounded research into active and passive learning underpinned the study. The author had also considered what would motivate the students. So extrinsic motivators were built into the design of the exercises. This involved peer collaboration and active participation plus the students earned points towards final marks.

The data collection methods in relation to the introductory lecture (passive aspect) and activity (active aspect) comprised a teaching diary (by the tutor) and observation (completed by 3 peers) undertaken in the seminar. Students completed a survey after the seminar. Taking a mixed method approach meant analysis of both qualitative (by content analysis using a set of agreed codes) and quantitative data (descriptive statistics) provided various insights into levels of students’ engagement from which conclusions were drawn and verified.

So what conclusions were drawn? Perhaps not unsurprisingly, a link was found between active learning methods and levels of engagement illustrated by the number of recorded concepts from the data relating to ‘attention’, ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘participation’. Similarly the data from the student survey provided some support for this finding. Whereas the concepts of ‘distraction’ and ‘disinterest’ were more prevalent in data collected during the traditional lecturing approach.

The other aspect of this study was the comparison of the exam results with the student cohort from the previous year which had had a 90 minute lecture on same topic. In other words a very different learning experience and so this acted as a control group for this study. Statistical analysis here did not show a significant difference between the groups in terms of exam results. Hence the conclusion that there is no evidence to support a link between active learning and knowledge retention/understanding. However the author did give due consideration to reasons as to why that might be and suggests ides for further research.

I really like this study as it demonstrates how we can address an issue, in this case lack of student engagement, in particular circumstances which is not uncommon. Then by planning some classroom research in a thorough and well-thought through way in order to evaluate alternative methods, we can take an informed approach to developing our practice. As with all research, it raises further and wider questions about the relationship between teaching and student learning. In this case possibly students’ expectations in participating in the activities and cultural differences. Fascinating!

Dr Rachael Carkett PFHEA SFSED

University of Bath


Early Career Academics’ Reflection on Learning to Teach in Central Europe

SEDA is publishing an open access book online, with a chapter released on its website every fortnight.  Each time a chapter is released it will be accompanied by a blog post published on SEDA WordPress. The book is called Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe, edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon. This book contains case studies by participants of a new educational development programme who redesigned their course sessions to apply student-centred approaches, using innovative teaching methods and stimulate good learning.

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