What does active learning look like in college science classrooms?

A new review addressing this topic was recently published. I love reviews (someone else does all the hard work and you just have to read their summary!) and this one does a good job of categorising many of the approaches under the “active” umbrella. There are some limitations (for me) in their analysis, but the categorisation is useful nonetheless.

Most interestingly, the authors present a framework to consider active learning. There are two components to this. One is perhaps obvious: considering active learning means that you must first have an overall approach (i.e. are you teacher/student-centred, constructivist, etc); a strategy – a basis for why you will design particular activities in the classroom; and finally what these activities are. That seems pretty obvious.

The authors then draw on social interdependence theory (no, I hadn’t either) which identifies whether there is positive, negative, or no benefit from cooperating with others in attaining a goal. This is interesting. They then place on a grid the various activities depending on whether there is benefit from interdependence or not (positive or none) and what kind of peer interactions an active learning strategy might employ. The grid they come up with is shown, and they highlight:
– the difference between one and two-stage polling (clicker questions vs more formal peer-instruction)
– there are a lot of activities that depend on only ‘loose’ peer interactions; interactions which are short lived and do not involve the same peers.

active learning social interdependence

Types of active learning

The review is useful as it offers a smorgasbord of the kinds of activities people undertake. These are categorised into four main headings:
1. Individual non-polling activities such as the minute-paper, writing exercises, individualy solving a problem, concept maps, building models…
2. In-class polling activities formalised in terms of peer-instruction (question, vote, discussion with peer, revote) and sequence of questions, and non-formalised such as one-off voting, poll followed by written answer…
3. Whole class discussions involving an activity, a facilitated discussion, and questions/answers…
4. In-class activities such as POGIL, lecture-tutorials, PBL activities, and jigsaws (different groups do different parts of a problem and then it is all brought together).

Defining active learning

The authors define active learning as: “active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher order thinking and often involves group work.

I think it is useful piece of work, and certainly the social interdependence piece is interesting. But I do wonder how they searched for information. They give details on this, but they seem to be missing a whole tranche of work around the flipped lecture movement, for example, and it would have been interesting to read about how active learning scenarios were facilitated in terms of curriculum design and what kinds of things were done in class once that information was available (or indeed relied on that process). Also they describe how they got papers but have a very worrying (in my view) statement about not looking at discipline specific journals, such as CERP. But a CERP paper is referenced. In fairness they do not declare to be comprehensive, but this kind of thing makes me wonder about the extent of the literature surveyed. But that is a minor gripe, and I think it is well worth a read.


Arthurs, L. A., & Kreager, B. Z. (2017). An integrative review of in-class activities that enable active learning in college science classroom settings. International Journal of Science Education, 1-19.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *