Does Active Learning Work? A Good Question, But Not the Right One!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

It’s not easy to show that active learning works. However, a combination of active learning and other types of learning can contribute significantly to deep learning.

A while back, Paul delivered a keynote on Educational Urban Legends at Europlat17, the European Psychology Learning and Teaching Conference. Doug Bernstein, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois and Courtesy Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida delivered a fascinating keynote as well, which was titled ‘Does Active Learning Work? Good Question, But Not the Right One!’.

Bernstein came up with this question as it is analogous to a question asked in the 1950s when there were many debates around the use of psychotherapy, namely ‘Does Psychotherapy Work?’ However, this was also the wrong question as, according to Gordon Paul (1969) it should have been: Which therapies lead to a clinical meaningful progression, who conducts these therapies and how, with which types of clients, what kind of problems do they have, and how sustainable are the benefits?

active learning 1

What is active learning? Bonwell and Eison (1991) explain (although they also argue that all learning is inherently active) that active learning should involve more than just listening: Learners must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. Even more important is that learners engage in higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Bernstein concludes that there’s hardly any strong research proving that active learning works. No wonder, he says, as the question if active learning works, is the wrong one. Instead, the question should be ‘which active learning methods taught by which instructors, in what kind of contexts and circumstances, lead to significant better learning results for which learners, and are these methods genuinely better than traditional methods (e.g., direct instruction and lectures)?

If you keep these questions in mind when looking at research on active learning, you see many factors that obscure the results such as researcher bias, instructor motivation, bad comparisons between methods or comparisons that just aren’t acceptable, and an incomparable or even NO control group. Therefore, there’s hardly any evidence that active learning works or is any better than other learning methods.

Moreover, Bernstein explains, the better the research method, the worse active learning scores. Sometimes traditional learning scores better and every so often, learners appreciate the traditional methods even better! For example, Wilson (2013) conducted a study on flipping the classroom, where most of the basic knowledge acquisition moved out of the classroom, so that there was more room for interactive activities during class time. Learners said that they had to “teach themselves everything in order to be able to get an OK grade” and that they “didn’t go to school to figure it all out themselves”. Another example is a longer study (two semesters) that was done by Miller and Groccia (1997). Learners could choose between collaborative or traditional learning methods. The learners who first chose collaborative learning, chose to move over to the traditional method after the first semester. This raises the question how (de)motivating active learning can be?

active learning 2

Bernstein gives a second reason that there’s so little evidence that active learning works: the classification active versus passive just doesn’t make any sense. Following Micki Chi’s (2009) categorisation, Bernstein divides instructional methods into four categories:

  • Passive – learners just listen
  • Active – learners do ‘something’, such as making notes, writing summaries, or playing a game (flipped classroom falls into this category)
  • Constructive – learners construct new knowledge through, for example, concept mapping or solving problems (or, perhaps, would flipped classroom fall into this category?),
  • Interactive – where two or more learners collaborate to ‘create knowledge’.

The image below shows the characteristics, overt activities, and cognitive processes for the four categories from the learner’s perspective, according to Chi.

active learning 3

Now, here’s the problem: When you look at various research outcomes on active learning, you’ll see that it’s almost impossible to compare instructional methods because most instructional approaches are a blend of some kind. There are hardly any examples of instructional methods that are a ‘pure breed’ of any one of the four categories.

Bernstein pleads wholeheartedly for, what he calls ‘interactive teaching’, which follows the footsteps of Benjamin (1991), Eison (2008), and Kirschner’s own PhD thesis (1991). In an interactive class more traditional instructional methods (such as direct instruction) are dotted with 1) regular individual and collaborative learning activities, 2) regular questions to learners to encourage them to think about the learning content in a certain way, consider how they have processed the content, and to be able to give learners feedback on any misconceptions, and 3) frequent use of various types of assessment (for example, to encourage retrieval practice ).

active learning 4Like Bernstein says: Perhaps it’s the interactive teaching approach that’s most effective to benefit from the strengths of more traditional as well as more active learning methods.

It’s like being a good cook; mix the right ingredients using the proper tools and techniques to get to the desired results. In this case, that’s deep learning!

You can reach Doug at

His website is


Benjamin, L. T. (1991). Personalization and active learning in the large introductory psychology class. Teaching of Psychology, 18, 68-74.


Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Washington, DC 20036-1183. Retrieved from

Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-constructive-interactive: A conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, 73–105. Retrieved from

Eison, J. (2010). Using active learning instructional strategies to create excitement and enhance learning. Unpublished manuscript available at

Kirschner, P. A. (1991). Practicals in higher science education. PhD Thesis. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Lemma.

Miller, J. E., & Groccia, J. E. (1997). Are four heads better than one? A comparison of cooperative and traditional teaching formats in an introductory biology course. Innovative Higher Education 21, 253-273.

Paul, G. L. (1969). Behavior modification research: Design and tactics. In C. M. Franks (Ed.), Behavior therapy: Appraisal and status (pp. 29–62). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, S. G. (2013). The flipped class: A method to address the challenges of an undergraduate statistics course. Teaching of Psychology40(3), 193-199.