My Research: Unpacking Active Learning

group work

Collaborative activities are becoming increasingly prevalent in classroom instruction. Often, when instructors start to incorporate collaborative activities in their instruction, they also start “flipping” the classroom. Flipping the classroom means to replace in-class lectures with more interactive activities. Having students solve problems collaboratively is just one example. To make room for such collaborative activities, the content that’s traditionally covered in lectures is assigned as preparatory material before class. For example, students may be asked to watch a lecture online or to read texts before class. Then, in-class activities serve to engage students more actively with the materials they read or watched before class. 

Figure 1“Students were seated at round tables of six. Collaborations involved pairs of students, groups of three, or the entire table of six.” Used with permission.* 

But does flipping the classroom actually enhance students’ learning, above and beyond just incorporating collaborative activities into classroom instruction? John Moore, one of the chemistry professors at my university, the University of Wisconsin - Madison approached me with this question. We ended up conducting a research study on one of his chemistry courses. John taught three versions of that course. He taught one version in the traditional format with mostly lecture-centric instruction. He also taught a second version where he incorporated in-class collaborative activities, but without flipping the classroom. And then, he taught a third version with collaborative activities while also flipping the classroom. To test which version of the class was most effective, we analyzed students’ learning outcomes in these three versions of the class using data from students’ final exams, and also from their final grades.

You can read about the details and analysis of our research in our recently published Journal of Chemical Education (JCE) article, Unpacking “Active Learning”: A Combination of Flipped Classroom and Collaboration Support Is More Effective but Collaboration Support Alone Is Not.* My colleagues and I worked to answer our research question: “Is active learning instruction more effective than traditional instruction if it combines collaboration support and flipped classroom methods?”* We also investigated how active learning might affect student attitudes and how those attitudes relate to students’ learning.

We found that students in the version of the class with collaborative activities but without the flipped classroom did not show significantly higher learning outcomes, compared to students in the traditional lecture-centric class. But students in the version of the class where collaborative activities were combined with the flipped classroom had significantly higher learning outcomes, compared to the traditional class. We also gave students a survey that assessed how they liked various aspects of the class. Students rated their liking of several aspects of the class worse in the collaboration and flipped classroom, compared to the other versions of the class. For example, they felt less competent and enjoyed the class less, including the collaborative activities. 

Figure 2 - “Estimated marginal means 30 of exam scores (left, in %) and course total scores (right, in %) by condition.” Used with permission.* 

Looking at our data, it seems that students get the most out of collaborative activities if they have to prepare class materials themselves before class, but they like it less! We think this is because students notice more how their own knowledge is limited when they prepare class materials before class. That feels uncomfortable, and they like it less. But, it makes them learn more.

To summarize, this may signal to instructors that we have to be very careful when using flipped classroom methods. On the one hand, they can improve learning beyond just incorporating collaborative activities. But on the other hand, we need to make sure that the burden of preparing materials before class does not reduce our students’ feeling of competence or their joy of learning.

My research has also investigated how best to help students learn with visuals that are prevalent in chemistry, such as ball-and-stick models and Lewis structures. I speak to this idea in the video below. For even more information about my research, I invite you to follow my on YouTube.


Martina Rau, of University of Wisconsin - Madison, investigated how best to help students learn with visuals that are prevalent in chemistry, such as ball-and-stick models and Lewis structures.


*Quote and figures reprinted with permission from , Martina A. Rau, Kristopher Kennedy, Lucas Oxtoby, Mark Bollom, and John W. Moore. Journal of Chemical Education, Article ASAP. Copyright 2017 American Chemical Society. (Accessed 9/19/17)