Does Active Learning Work?

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93, 223-331.

Michael Prince, author of Does active learning work? A review of the research (2004) completed a study to determine if there is actual evidence that supports the effectiveness of active learning. In the article, the author defined active learning “generally as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (pg. 223). The author also discussed the different styles of instructional methods of active learning which include but are not limited to, collaborative learning, which means any instructional method in which students work together in small groups toward a common goal; cooperative learning, can be defined as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually; and problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method where relevant problems are introduced at the beginning of the instruction cycle and used to provide the context and motivation for the learning that follows. Additionally, the author discussed issues that have been presented in previous publications or findings that may confuse instructors on the effectiveness of active learning. There are various studies where the outcomes are skewed because of the lack of definition of “active learning” and what actually is being measured. The author continued with evidence that supports active learning in various ways such as introducing student activity into lectures and promoting student engagement. At the conclusion of the article the author  states “although the results vary in strength, this study has found support for all forms of active learning examined” (p. 227).

Review of Strengths and Contributions

Organization – This article was a perfect starting point to begin my research on active learning. I valued that the author provided a rationale as to why some previous studies and articles could cause confusion. The article is laid out nicely with the headings, summaries, etc.

Contribution to Field – This article contributes to the field of “active learning” research by analyzing various active learning methods in a concise way. This article may help an instructor to begin formulating a revised pedagogy for their class.

Literature Review – The author provided an analysis on various learning methods that have been studied by other researchers. These methods include, active learning using the pause procedure, collaborative learning (small group work), cooperative learning (group work being assessed individually) and problem based learning.

Data Collection/Analysis/Findings–

The author (Prince, 2004) provided information on the first method studied, it was active learning using the pause procedure (student activity during traditional lecture). In the article, Using the Pause Procedure to Enhance Lecture Recall (Hughes & Schloss, 1987, p. 225), they conducted a study involving 72 students over two courses in each of two semesters. The findings showed short-term recall with the pause procedure averaged 108 correct facts compared to 80 correct facts. Long-term retention was assessed with a 65 question multiple-choice exam given one and a half weeks after the last lecture. Test scores were 89.4% with the pause procedure compared to 80.9% without pause for one class, and 80.4% with the pause procedure compared to 72.6% with no pause in the other class.

The second method reviewed by the author was collaborative learning (small group work). In the book, Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998, p. 226-227), the researchers reviewed multiple studies comparing individual work versus group work. The findings indicated that by using collaborative learning a student would move from the 50th to the 70th percentile on an exam, (raising a student’s grade from 75% to 81%), which in turn, reduces attrition in technical programs by 22%.

Another method reviewed by the author was cooperative learning (group work being assessed individually). There were multiple studies comparing the exam scored when students worked individually and in a group. The findings indicated student’s exam scores jumped from 75% to 85%. The research also showed that it promoted effective teamwork and improved interpersonal skills.

The last method studied was problem based learning (PBL). The author, Michael Prince, indicated that the large variation in PBL practices makes the analysis of its effectiveness more complex and harder to study. However, one generally accepted finding that emerges from the literature, concluded that PBL produces positive student attitudes.

Discussion/Conclusions – The article was written so that instructors would not have to sift through multiple studies to see if the benefits of active learning are actually quantifiable. The author proved that the research shows that active learning in various forms can significantly improve student exam scores, retention, interpersonal skills and attitudes.


An area of research interest for me is active learning. I am very interested in various teaching modalities that can engage students in a more meaningful and impactful way. I recently discussed, in a reflective writing piece, how at the University of Arizona, College of Medicine – Phoenix (COM-P) we are constantly exploring new ways to deliver curriculum to the students. Even though we have some of the best medical minds in the world, we still struggle with ways to fully engage our students.

At the COM-P we have incorporated independent learning modules (ILM’s) where students can watch and listen to various lecture topics on their own time. We also have a state-of-the-art simulation lab that can fully simulate multiple medical scenarios. However, these modes of instruction can be time consuming and labor intensive, which may result in faculty members sticking to the traditional method of lecture based instruction. The author explains that active learning doesn’t need to be difficult but more deliberate. What I thought was fascinating was when the author discussed the pause procedure as studied by Ruhl et al (1987). While this is not a ground-breaking method, it is one that is very simple to incorporate and the data proves there is a direct improvement in material recall.

The multiple studies and findings discussed in this article have further ignited my interest in active learning and pursuing enhanced ways to improve student learning, retention and exam scores.


Johnson, D., Johnson, R., & Smith, K. (Ed.). (1998). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co.,

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work ? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93, 223–231.

Ruhl, K., Hughes, C., & Schloss, P. Using the pause procedure to enhance lecture recall. Teacher Education and Special Education, 10(1987), 14–18.

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2 comments — post a comment

Mona Scott

Lisa, I love the organization of your research blog!


Hi Mona! Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging words. I really appreciate it.

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