Active learning

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Active learning is the process of engaging with students in class through active means such as discussions and group work, as opposed to passively listening to an expert or a teacher. The in-class inquiry and cooperative learning activities emphasizes higher-order thinking. Freeman et al. found that active learning produces significant improvement in student performance across all STEM disciplines.

Traditional lecturing continues to dominate the economic discipline in all types of undergraduate courses despite calls for greater use of active learning methods (Watts and Schaur, 2010).

Evidence of Active Texas A&M University Link:

Freeman et al. (2014) conducted a metaanalysis of 225 studies that compared student performance under traditional lecturing versus active learning in STEM undergraduate courses. The results showed that average exam scores improved by 6% in active learning sections and students in traditional lecturing sections were 1.5 times more likely to fail the course. The effects held across all STEM disciplines and all class sizes although it was greatest in small classes. The paper supports "active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms."

Lorenzo et al. (2006) investigate the effects of active learning in a introductory physics course at Harvard University. The results showed that interactive teaching methods not only improved understanding for both male and female students but reduced the gender gap by increasing female understanding significantly more. The study varied levels of activity in courses and found that the most interactive course almost entirely eliminated the gender gap.

Mayo (2004) reports a statistical test on case-based instruction in psychology and found that students using case-based instruction performed significantly better than their traditionally instructed counterparts (as cited in Hoyt and McGoldrick, 2013). The benefits of case-based instruction was seen both in comprehension and application of course concepts.


One-minute papers serves as a way to seal ideas in students' minds, develop critical thinking skills, and provide feedback on how much of the material have been understood.

Peer Instruction modifies the traditional lecturing by breaking up the lecture in short 10-15 minute segments. Between these short lectures, conceptual questions are discussed by students in small groups to address difficulties that students may face during class time (students are expected to do readings before class in order to participate).

Cooperative learning is an approach that promotes students working in groups in order to learn collectively significantly increasing student engagement and performance. Cooperative learning techniques have also been shown to increase performance of underrepresented students.

How to Employ Active Learning

Problem sets effectively engage and challenge students by requiring them to comprehend and use concepts from the lesson. For a guide on using context-rich problems in the Economics classroom read here.
  • Encourage a variety of answers instead of "one right answer"
Allowing a variety of answers encourages student involvement and critical thinking in the classroom. It is important to identify value in their comments and explain why (if any) the generally accepted answer is valuable.
  • Actively use case studies and examples to strengthen class content
Case use in economic courses challenges the student to learn by making them apply theoretical constructs in real-life situations. It encourages "learning by doing" (Hoyt and McGoldrick, 2013).
  • Facilitate in-class discussions and presentations
Provide students with the knowledge and tools necessary for them to engage in healthy discussions with one another. Including presentations in the class syllabus is a useful tool for increased student activity.