Benefits of Active Learning Are All About Activity

Researchers monitored students' heart rates during medical school lectures to test the long-standing theory that active learning provides an attention reset.
Dec. 2, 2019

For the first time, the hypothesis that active learning sessions result in a reset of student attention has been tested by researchers at the University of Arizona, who used heart rate data to determine that, while active learning has its benefits, attention reset is not one of them.

More than 200 prior studies have established that active learning, which occurs when students engage in activities that make use of concepts presented in lectures or reading material, results in better educational outcomes than non-active learning. Lecture presentations, when a teacher presents a more-or-less uninterrupted flow of information that students passively receive, are a classic example of non-active learning.

The precise reasons why active learning results in better educational outcomes, however, are unclear.

One widely held belief is that a period of active learning inserted into a lecture provides a stimulating interruption, something like the mental equivalent of standing up and stretching when involved in a tedious manual task. The mental diversion provided by active learning exercises results was said to result in an attention reset, where the student is then able to pay more attention to subsequent factual content in the lecture material. This hypothesis was the foundation of the active learning movement, proposed 40 years ago by Donald Bligh, author of "What's the Use of Lectures?", and is often cited but was never tested.

Diana Darnell and Paul Krieg, of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine in the College of Medicine – Tucson, tested the attention-reset theory by tracking the changes in the heart rates of students during 42 lectures.

Previous observations show that an increase in heart rate correlates with a person's level of attention or engagement. Student volunteers wore wrist watch-style personal heart rate monitors during medical school lectures, and changes in heart rate were measured in response to different classroom activities.

As expected, student heart rates showed a steady decline from the beginning to the end of lecture classes, and active learning sessions resulted in significantly increased heart rates.

What was not expected, though, was that student heart rates decreased immediately at the end of the active learning session, to almost precisely the same level as before the activity.

"If we interpret the heart rate in terms of attention, then the students were very attentive during the active learning session, but their interest diminished to the same level it was before – or lower – as soon as the activity was over," Darnell said. "In other words, there was no attention reset."

The study has important implications for how time in the classroom can be used most effectively.

"The results suggest that the primary value of active learning lies in the manipulation of information, or processing of knowledge, within the active learning period, and not to any reset of attention that may result from an interruption to the flow of the lecture," Krieg said. "In practical terms, educators must pay much more attention to engaging students in active learning sessions during class, because the sessions themselves are the source of the improved educational outcomes."

The paper, "Student engagement, assessed using heart rate, shows no reset following active learning sessions in lectures," was published today in PLoS One.

Topics: