Actively Improving Exam Scores?

Yoder, J. D., and Hochevar, C. M. (2005). Encouraging active learning can improve students’ performance on examinations. Teaching of Psychology, 32(2), 91–95. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3202

I have been enthusiastically reading multiple articles, book chapters and on-line materials in my quest to learn more about active learning. The term ‘active learning’ seemed to be a buzz word as of late, however true active learning had been occurring for thousands of years. The most recent article I read caught my attention simply because of the title, Encouraging active learning can improve students’ performance on examinations (Yoder & Hochevar, 2005). I wanted to know how they can prove this and what methods were used.

Article Summary

The authors (Yoder & Hochevar, 2005) hypothesized that students in upper level psychology classes would perform better on exams if the materials were presented using various active learning methods versus traditional teaching methods. In this article the definition of active learning was, “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (pg. 91). The authors discussed multiple active learning studies and their outcome. However, Yoder and Hochevar felt confident that no other study, until theirs, combined multiple active learning techniques in order to examine the overall effectiveness compared to nonactive teaching models.

The class was taught in the spring semester of 2001 (45 students), 2002 (37 students) and 2003 (38 students) by the same instructor – the first author, Janice Yoder. In order to show the progression of using active learning as the primary teaching modality, the class of 2003 was the base, while tracking changes from 2001 to 2003 as well as from 2002 and 2003 (Yoder & Hochevar, 2005). The procedure for the study included obtaining class GPAs’ that were deidentified and securing institutional research board (IRB) approval to use the class data. The student demographic was relatively fixed with mostly women and the GPAs’ were consistent between all three classes studied. The authors noted that the “unit of analysis was exam items, not students” (pg. 92). The major area of interest in the study was class wide performance (the correct answers) on the exact test across all three classes. The exam questions were coded to the teaching modality when the content was delivered. The authors compared students’ performance on the exact same exam questions over the course of three years. The only slight difference was the minimal editing of two questions out of the 40 questions administered. The active learning methods utilized included, but were not limited to, discussions of materials class wide or in small groups, exercises and simulations (Yoder & Hochevar, 2005).

Summarized Study Results

With the 2001 class being the nonactive learning model, the results from the class of 2002 and 2003 represented a significant shift toward greater reliance on active learning (Yoder & Hochevar, 2005). Additionally, the patterns in the data indicates that the analyses were clear and mostly consistent. “Both within a class and between classes, classes scored higher and less variably on items testing materials presented via active learning compared to lecture, autonomous readings or video without discussion coverage” (pg. 93).

Strengths, Critiques and Response

The purpose of this study was to gauge how students would perform on exams if active learning was utilized. While the study seems strong in using the same instructor and the same exam, I would conceive that using these two main variables alone could possibly have a different outcome in a different setting. For example, the first author in this study, Yoder, was also the instructor. Her enthusiasm for teaching may have increased over the three years because the students were increasingly engaged in the subject matter because it was being taught in a more interactive way. I equate this to having a “good” teacher and having a “bad” teacher. For example, when I was in high school I struggled in any math related subject. I avoided any class that might include any algebraic equations simply because I despised math and my lack of confidence made me feel dumb. I tried to learn basic algebra but it never stuck. Fast forward 15 years and in order to graduate from college I needed to pass college algebra with a 70% or better. Needless to say, I had major anxiety over accomplishing this feat! Luckily I worked at a community college and had the luxury of knowing who was a “good” teacher and who was a “bad” teacher. In reality, none of them were bad there were just different levels of enthusiasm. I wanted an instructor who felt a passion to teach math not just to bring home a paycheck. In order for me to really learn math I decided that I needed to start at the bottom and move my way up to college algebra. My plan of attack worked! Why this plan worked was because of a couple of different factors, they were: I wanted to learn (and never feel inadequate in regards to math again) AND the instructor wanted me to learn. This instructor had a vested interest in me and wanted me to succeed. Finally, in comparing my basic experience to a three year study, one would venture that if a singular instructor could change the outcome for one student (me) just on vested interest alone, then a study and the data produced can be skewed simply because the common denominator over the three year span was the same instructor, Yoder, who also had a large amount of vested interest.

While I am still in the early stages of researching the multiple facets of active learning, I would be very interested to see if the study described in the article Encouraging active learning can improve students’ performance on examinations (Yoder & Hochevar, 2005) could be expanded. The size of the study was very small in terms of the number of students involved and the number of variables were limited. While their intent of the study was to prove that active learning improves test scores, I felt that the study would have been more valid if the active learning techniques were the same but delivered by different instructors who also administered the same exam.



Yoder, J. D., & Hochevar, C. M. (2005). Encouraging active learning can improve students’ performance on examinations. Teaching of Psychology, 32(2), 91–95. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3202

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