Feelings of learning in active learning versus lecture settings

20 September 2019

Earlier this month, the article “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom,” in PNAS, garnered a lot of buzz. In a carefully controlled classroom environment, researchers gathered direct measures of student learning in an introductory physics course, as well as student self-reported perceptions of learning. They found that students learned more in the active learning classes (as would be expected based on much existing research), but students’ perception of learning was lower in active learning environments than in passive learning environments. This suggests that when instructors try to evaluate teaching based on students’ perception of learning, they might mistakenly find themselves lecturing more because students will self-report that they are learning more from lectures than in-class activities.

What’s going on here? The paper notes that the cognitive fluency of lectures can lead students to believe that they are learning more than they actually are. Active learning requires more cognitive effort, and as students struggle with activities, they become aware of what they don’t understand, which can lead to diminished feelings of learning. The paper suggests that instructors should discuss with students the research showing that perceived fluency and feelings of learning can be misleading as compared to actual learning. As always, explaining to students the “why” of the pedagogical choices we make is important.

Reading the PNAS paper reminded me of other discussions I’ve seen that explore how students are poor judges of the effectiveness of various study strategies. For example, students believe that massed studying is more effective than interleaved studying, although students actually perform better after interleaved studying. This once again seems to be a case of students assuming that feelings of fluency reflect actual learning.

For faculty who are looking to help students develop better self-monitoring skills, there are a variety of different approaches. Saundra McGuire’s book Teach Students How to Learn is available in the LTC library, and a number of faculty have found its suggestions for fostering metacognition to be useful. This recent blog post at Improve with Metacognition provides some suggestions for smaller activities to incorporate into classes to help students develop metacognitive skills. And this blog has highlighted Chico Zimmerman and his approach to using learning assists as a way to foster metacognition in the classroom. What are some of your approaches to encouraging students to become better a monitoring their own learning?