Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gap for Black and First-Generation Students

Active learning in college shows academic benefits for Black and first-generation students. Find out what it means and how to bring it to your campus.

portrait of Bernard Grant, Ph.D.
by Bernard Grant, Ph.D.

Published September 1, 2022

Reviewed by Paige J. Gardner, Ph.D.

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Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gap for Black and First-Generation Students
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Studies show that active learning increases student performance. Active learning means students are dynamically involved in classroom activities. It resists students as passive listeners who sit silently and still throughout an entire class session.

Students in active learning classrooms engage in movement, discussion, and hands-on individual and group activities. Critically, active learning is shown to narrow achievement gaps for Black and first-generation college students. Read on to learn more about active learning and explore the benefits of active learning in the college classroom.

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning stems from cognitive constructivism, which states that people learn and create new insights by linking new knowledge with previously learned knowledge.

Instructors who employ active learning involve students in the learning process. This can take many forms including peer reviews, group evaluations, discussions and debates, individual creative activities, role playing, internet data and resource searches, games, and simulations.

Activities that require student involvement and participation drive students to process what they're learning in real time.

Benefits of Active Learning for All Students

Instructors can lose the attention of students when delivering lectures — a single stream of information, even when paired with a slideshow, meant to help students absorb the content.

Active learning shifts the focus from absorbing content in this single stream, which requires a level of rote memorization, to one that varies the opportunity to make content connections.

With active learning, a 2020 PNAS study found that achievement gaps narrowed — specifically in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. Minority students and first-generation students saw a reduction in achievement gaps in exam scores and passing rates. Additional studies dating back to 2014 show the benefits of active learning on academic achievement.

Students who took part in the study reported an increased sense of community and self-efficacy in active learning courses compared to those in lecture-intensive courses.

How Active Learning Narrows Achievement Gaps

The 2020 study shows that active learning narrows achievement gaps, supporting calls from active learning advocates who want to replace traditional lecturing environments with active learning strategies.

Achievement gaps refer to the academic performance of one group of students compared to another group of students. The gap occurs when one group in the same academic population performs better than the other group. Inequality of educational access commonly leads to achievement gaps in college education.

The study tested the hypothesis that underrepresented students — students who identify with ethnic and racial minority groups — benefit from active learning classroom structures more than from lecture-centered classrooms.

The results showed that Black and first-generation students experienced narrower achievement gaps when in active learning classrooms compared to students in lecture-centered classrooms.

In the study, which surveyed the performance of 44,606 students in STEM disciplines, researchers learned that, on average, active learning environments reduced achievement gaps by 33%, while the gaps in passing rates were reduced by 45%.

The amount of time students spend completing in-class active learning activities raises exam scores and reduces course failure rates for Black college students and first-generation college students, according to the research.

3 Ways to Advocate for Active Learning in College

1. Talk with professors and administrators.

You can share with your professors the studies and articles on the benefits of active learning in college classrooms. Schools seeking to promote student achievement are likely open to understanding how students learn best and will welcome this information.

You can also ask professors if they might try active learning strategies in their classes.

2. Share information about active learning with your peers.

Talking to your peers about active learning can amplify your advocacy efforts, especially if you've already spoken to professors and administrators about the benefits of active learning.

Together, you can discuss the impact of active learning strategies in various courses and compare them to lecture-style courses.

3. Advocate online.

Social media is a great way to amplify your message and find fellow advocates. You might post resources or examples from other colleges already using active learning strategies. In addition to social media, search your college's website to find on-campus groups that advocate for academic changes and join in.

Frequently Asked Questions About Active Learning

Why is active learning important?

Active learning means students learn by engaging with the content, enhancing instructors' teaching style. Active learning promotes application, analysis, problem-solving, reflection, and evaluation — higher-level skills that can increase attention and learning.

The delivery method of traditional lecture courses means students passively listen. Student concentration may last only a small portion of each lecture, leaving students in lecture courses to rely on notes and rote memory.

Active learning instructors can increase student attention by changing the way students are engaged during each lesson, like trying a different activity or approach every 20 minutes rather than changing topics.

How does active learning help students?

Active learning motivates students to think about and engage with course materials rather than mindlessly listening to lectures, copying slides, and struggling not to daydream or fall asleep.

Applying different learning modes is an inclusive practice that supports students' varying learning styles. The creativity and individuality promoted by active learning techniques enables students to learn deeper than in traditional lecture courses.

The variety of active learning techniques requires critical thinking and creativity from teachers and students, deepening students' recollection and understanding of course material.

What are the active learning strategies?

Active learning strategies are wide-ranging and include individual and group activities. In a cooperative learning mode, for example, students work toward common goals, while instructors evaluate and grade their efforts individually.

Think-pair-share is a cooperative learning activity in which students group together to think about a teacher's question before sharing their responses with the class.

Students may also work in groups to create case studies, to review or evaluate each others' work, or to build a blog or social media page. Active learning strategies also include the creation of concept maps, drawing diagrams, and building hands-on projects.