Geoff Petty - Have we time for active learning?

Active learning has been shown to improve students’ work by a grade and a half. So, what’s stopping you from trying it?  

“Active learning? You must be joking, there’s no time for entertainment. I’ve too much content to cover.” We have all heard such views in staffrooms, yet in official circles active learning remains the orthodoxy. Professors queue up to insist upon it, inspectors require it and conference speakers chant its praises. Many of us even remember long lectures about its effectiveness during our teacher training. 

So, we all know the theory, but have we got time for it? Many researchers have asked this question then adopted a ‘suck it and see’ approach to answer it. This approach consists of rigorous control group studies with real teachers in real colleges and schools.  

Students are divided between: 

  • An ‘experimental group’, which is taught with active methods 
  • A ‘control group’, which is taught the same material without active methods 

The control and experimental groups are carefully composed to be identical in their mix of ability, social background and so on. The groups are taught for the same length of time, by the same teachers, or by teachers of the same ability, and the students are tested to see which group has learned best. In study after study of this type, active learning produced much better learning. 

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Statistical evidence Professors John Hattie and Robert Marzano have, independently, used careful statistical methods to average the findings of thousands of the most rigorous studies on active learning. 

Their findings show that, for the best active methods, if you put a student in the experimental group, then on average, they will do more than a grade and a half better than if they had been placed in the control group. The time the teacher has to teach the topic is not a factor. Remember that the groups taught with active learning methods were taught for the same amount of time as the control group. 

While the experimental group was engaged in the active learning methods, the control group was receiving more content and fuller explanations from their teacher. But the control group learned less. 

Geoff Petty March 2

Many teachers say active learning would be great ‘if they had the time’. But the research shows that if you make the time for effective active learning by doing less didactic teaching, then your students will do better. It may seem strange not to be able to say everything you know about the topic you are teaching, but it won’t help. You know too much. Active learning has been shown to work well at every course level and 

Peter Westwood, summarising research on how best to teach students with learning difficulties, argued for highly structured, intensive, well-directed, active learning methods. Which active methods work best? Sadly, any activity will not do. You need to set activities that require students to make their own meanings of the concepts you are teaching and that require them to practise important skills. Ideally, the activity is highly relevant to your goals, is an open task and is challenging. Let’s look at methods that have done particularly well in these rigorous trials. 


Same and different  

Tasks that require the learner to identify similarities and differences between two or more topics or concepts, often one they are familiar with, and one they are presently studying, for example: ‘Compare and contrast viral and bacterial infections.’ 


Graphic organisers  

Students create their own diagrammatic representation of what they are learning, for example in a mind map, flow diagram or comparison table. They get out of their place to look at other students’ work, to help them improve their own. Then, they self-assess their own diagram using a model diagram provided by you. 


Decisions, decisions 

Students are given a set of cards to match, group, rank, or sequence. For example: ‘rank these advantages of stocktaking in a shop, in order of importance, then sort them by who benefits most, customer, business, supplier, or investor. Students are asked to reject your ‘spurious’ cards that do not describe an advantage of stocktaking. 



There are many feedback methods including self-assessment and peer assessment. Ask students to decide on what was done well and what they could improve.  


Hypothesis testing 

You give students a statement that is partly true, but partly false: “Screws are better than nails” or “Cromwell was religiously motivated.” Then, you ask them to work in groups to evaluate the statement. When the groups are finished you get one reason in favour of the hypothesis from each group in turn, continuing until all their reasons have been given. You nominate the member of the group to give the reason and to justify it: ‘Why did your group think that?’ 

When a reason has been given, say ‘thank you’ but don’t agree or disagree with it. Repeat for reasons against. When all the reasons are in, ask the class as a whole to try to agree reasons for and against. Then give your thoughts on their ideas. 

I expect you can guess why these methods work: they force students to think and into making sense of what you are teaching them. But let’s not confuse good explaining with good learning. The delivery of content does not guarantee its arrival. In the end it is perhaps no surprise that students only get good at doing it by doing it. So if you are short of time, cut the explaining, not the student activity. 


What’s stopping you from using it?  

  • If active learning works, why don’t more teachers use it? 
  • We tend to teach the way we were taught ourselves, rather than in the way that works best. 
  • We know too much and rather enjoy explaining. So when you set activities, listen carefully to learners as they work, this can be even more enjoyable and less hard work than explaining – and the feedback is very informative. 



  • Hattie, JA (2009) Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge 
  • Marzano, R. Pickering, D. Pollock, J. (2001) Classroom Instruction that works, First Edition Alexandria: ASCD 
  • Mitchell, D. (2008) What really works in Special and Inclusive Education, London: Routledge 
  • Petty, G. (2009) Evidence-Based Teaching, Second edition. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes See also 
  • Westwood, P. (2003) Commonsense Methods for Children with Special Educational Needs. Fourth edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer