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, allowing them to construct their understanding rather than passively receive information from an expert. In-class inquiry and cooperative learning activities require and develop higher-order thinking, while lectures encourage memorization. Freeman et al. found that active learning produces significant improvement in student performance across all STEM disciplines.

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

Evidence on Active Learning 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) investigated 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.

Deslauriers et al. (2011) studied the effects of two different instructional approaches in a large-enrollment physics class. They measured the learning of a set of concepts when taught by 3 hours of traditional lecturing by an experienced highly rated instructor and when taught by 3 hours of active learning methods by an inexperienced post-doctoral fellow. The results showed increased attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in treatment group. "The clicker questions and group tasks were designed not only to require explicit expert reasoning but also to be sufficiently interesting and personally relevant to motivate students to fully engage." The study showed significant success for active learning strategies consistent with other studies.

Welsh (2012) reported undergraduate students' perceptions of active learning techniques. Written comments from over 250 students revealed that upperclassmen were more likely to view active learning techniques as "a waste of lecture time" whereas underclassmen and females generally felt that active learning improved their understanding and interaction with professors and peers. This study suggests that 1) instructors might want to address student (mis)perceptions by explicitly discussing their goals and the research supporting active learning, and 2) lecturing, the predominant method in economics, might not serve female students well.

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 were seen both in comprehension and application of course concepts.

O'Sullivan (2010) conducted a study on the efficacy of discussions in her intermediate macroeconomics course. She divided the class into recitation groups that used structured discussion (see Inquiry-based learning), unstructured discussion, and lecture.The results showed that structured discussions led to more student-to-student interaction and more student interventions during the recitation than either of the other techniques (as cited in Hoyt and McGoldrick 2013).

Scruggs et al. (1993) found that students engaged in an inquiry-oriented and experiential curriculum performed significantly better in unit tests and follow-up tests than their counterparts in a textbook based curriculum. Other studies have shown that the active learning curriculum is associated with fewer disciplinary problems such as suspension and vandalism (Cawley et al. 2002 as cited in Childre et al. 2009).

See Hoyt and McGoldrick for various teaching strategies in economics courses and further evidence of improved student performance.

How to Employ Active Learning

  • Introduce your students to Bloom's Taxonomy.
Peer Instruction modifies traditional lecturing by breaking up lectures into 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). Peer instruction can be implemented with clickers by following steps explained by Stephanie Chasteen.
For example after lecturing on the great recession, a question like 'discuss some of the amplification mechanisms that led to the financial meltdown' allows students to talk about leveraging, collateral calls, and credit default swaps with one another during class time. This enables students who understand the lecture to communicate their thoughts while also allowing students who might be struggling to listen to their peers and verbalize any questions.
Using an experimental design, John F Chizmar and Anthony L. Ostrosky (1998) report an approximate 6.6 percent increase in economic knowledge relative to pre-treatment levels. Click here for an example of a one-minute paper from Tufts University.
  • Flip the classroom.
  • Use problem sets with context-rich problems. 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.
For example, "examine possible causes of the inequality in wages between racial groups'" can be answered in many ways, each providing valuable insight into the economics behind it. One could approach it from the human capital model suggesting that some racial groups simply possess less human capital. An alternate approach could look at discrimination in the labor (animus-based or statistical) as a reason for such inequality allowing students to look into the economics of discrimination. A third answer could point us towards network externalities implying that more institutional changes are needed to combat this inequality. An instructor can recognize the value in all of these answers and may also want to introduce heterodox theories of economics.
  • 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.
  • For an illustrated case for active learning, click here to see Salemi's approach to using active learning in teaching students the concept of present value.
  • 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.


The economics discipline is still dominated by traditional lecturing even though there have been significant evidence in favor of active learning methods. Lecturing disproportionately hurts students with less prior preparation in or attachment to economics (Bayer and Rouse, forthcoming). By pursuing an active learning approach to economics, instructors can create a learning environment that benefits all students and decreases the gap between the majority and minority in the discipline.