Spotlight on Innovation: Purdue To Study Why Active Learning Works

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Active learning models are becoming more common – but do we know why they’re effective? Researchers at Purdue are investigating.


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

Active learning models are becoming more common as professors seek to engage a wider array of students. Project-based learning, clickers, flipped classrooms and other strategies have transformed classrooms — but little scientific research has been done to determine why active learning models are successful. Knowing that could guide more targeted pedagogical strategies.

Researchers at Purdue University plan to address this gap through a $2.3 million First in the World grant that will allow them to conduct a large-scale controlled study about why active-learning strategies improve student retention and completion rates. Four years ago, Purdue began transforming large-enrollment courses from lecture-based courses to ones with active, student-centered learning as part of Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation (IMPACT) four years ago. IMPACT has already replaced 120 lecture-based courses with an active-learning approach. By the 2016-17 academic year, Purdue expects that number to rise to 300.

Now Purdue will build on that success in undertaking a new study. We spoke with Chantal Levesque-Bristol, director of the Center for Instructional Excellence and a professor of educational studies, to learn more about the new undertaking.

Success through Transformative Education and Active Mentoring

For the new study, titled Success Through Transformative Education and Active Mentoring, Levesque-Bristol will focus on 30 multi-section courses in science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math that haven’t already been transformed through IMPACT. Courses in the experimental section will make the switch to the IMPACT active-learning models while other sections of the course will remain control sections.

Levesque-Bristol will use pre- and post-test assessments to measure change in faculty-identified learning outcomes to determine success. She will also administer a pre-course and post-course student perception survey that measures components of motivation such as autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-regulated learning. She hypothesizes that student motivation will be higher in the experimental section, and that those factors will result in improved student success, as measured by academic performance, retention, and degree completion.

Self-Determination Theory

“The framework that I’m using is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) by Deci and Ryan,” Levesque-Bristol explains. “According to the theory, students learn best when they feel competent, autonomous and connected. I’m proposing that these motivational mechanisms will be the moderating factors between the types of transformation implemented and the types of active learning activities incorporated in the class and the student success outcomes that we want.”

The Basics of SDT:

Student-centered learning is most effective when students experience:

  • Autonomy, in the sense of empowerment, choice, and options in their learning so that they feel like they are really participating in the learning experience
  • Competence, defined as gaining confidence and development and mastery of skills
  • Connectedness with other students, the instructor, and with the course material.

“We’ll also look at the impact of active-learning strategies on motivation,” Levesque-Bristol elaborates. “We hypothesize that active learning strategies work because they increase student motivation, not because of the implementation of the tool or strategy itself. Then, if students are motivated and engaged they’ll be more likely to be retained, earn better grades, and graduate on time.” The type of active learning used is not as important as the human influence that helps students understand how the material they learn is connected with their goals and their experience, Levesque-Bristol hypothesizes.  “A redesign will be effective if the learning climate is perceived to be student-centered.

“That’s what we’re already finding out with IMPACT, that it doesn’t matter so much <em

Support for Faculty

The project also includes support for faculty who are teaching the experimental course sections to help them create student-centered learning environments. The support consists of active mentoring, in which faculty work closely with three staff members as part of the IMPACT program and participate in a semester-long program through Blackboard that includes weekly assignments, readings, and activities.

Participating faculty will also mentor each other, and will work to build a faculty learning community.

Keys to Success

The success of the project is rooted in faculty mastering the motivational principles to create a student-centered learning climate, and Levesque-Bristol is confident they will be successful because Purdue already has four years of experience in this work through IMPACT. “We have a good sense of what works and what does not, and we have been making modifications to the training program accordingly over the past several years,” she notes.

Tracking students and managing the data will be especially crucial. Levesque-Bristol’s research team includes several engineers who have spent their life “designing processes for efficient work,” she notes.

Why You Should Watch this Project

While no one doubts that student-centered learning is crucial for the success of students, we’re particularly interested in the questions being posed in this study. The results will have critical implications for pedagogy, especially as institutions seek to educate a wide range of students more effectively.