Children learn better when they are more active in lessons and have more control over their learning, says a new study.

Hands-on activities, discussions, group work, feedback and using AI-enhanced technology are not only more enjoyable but are more effective than sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher, according to research published today in the journal Science.

And active learning particularly benefits disadvantaged students, reducing the ‘learning gap’ between them and their more advantaged peers.

The findings undermine the case for ‘direct instruction’, which has seen a surge in popularity in recent years as part of a return to a more traditional approach to teaching.

While active learning encourages students to think for themselves, direct instruction, as its name suggests, prioritizes students listening to teachers as the primary method of teaching.

But, as a team led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered, direct instruction is not necessarily the most effective way for children to learn.

School closures during the pandemic challenged teachers to come up with new ways of engaging students, and prompted a new focus on how children learn best.

And after analyzing a range of studies spanning kindergarten children to college students, researchers concluded that students learn more when they play an active role in their education.

Among the studies drawn on for evidence, researchers found that using AI algorithms providing reconstructions and adaptive feedback to support experiments such as using an earthquake table boosted student learning.

“We wanted to see what we learned from teaching and learning during Covid and what could be brought back into the classroom,” said Nesra Yannier, faculty at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and one of the authors of the study.

“Covid forced educators to engage students in novel ways, and teachers were experimenting with new technology.”

In another study, asking students to use their hands to model physical phenomena, such as the behavior of water in a tilting glass, led to children being more able to generalize their learning than if they only had a verbal explanation.

The research also highlighted how much perceptions of learning can affect our view of which approach is more effective.

One study two groups of college physics students. One group was assigned to a class using active learning, mainly comprised of small-group work followed by tailored feedback. The other class attended lectures, before the two groups switched for the following session.

Although students learned significantly more with the active learning approach, the feeling of learning was more pronounced with the traditional lectures.

The researchers concluded that the effort involved in active learning was a sign of effective learning, even if the students did not always see it that way.

Active learning also has the potential to reduce disparities between different groups of students.

Analysis of a number of different studies shows that active learning, such as group work, disproportionately benefits students who have been historically marginalized in STEM subjects, such as students from low income or ethnic minority groups.

Where active learning makes up two-thirds of more of total teaching time, the between-student difference in exam scores was 42% lower than classes that did not use active learning, and the difference in passing rates was 76% lower.

Researchers argue that this may be due to group work offering both an increased opportunity to practice and a sense of shared purpose and community, something they describe as a “heads and hearts” approach.

But active learning needs careful implementation and managing if it is to be effective, researchers suggest.

Assigning students to work with others they do not know may increase anxiety, whereas working with peers can help them realize they are not the only ones struggling with particular concepts.

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