Disciplines and Active Learning

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Active learning represents a significant set of strategies that can increase student engagement with course material. However, how does disciplinary context factor into the way we use these strategies?

Active learning remains a major trend in higher education. Several of the most-read topics for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Teaching Newsletter revolved around active learning strategies, including the interactive lecture, test review and debriefing. Studies show that it can have a major impact on student learning. However, much of that research focuses on the implementation of active learning strategies in STEM courses. They represent a stark departure from the continuous lecture, a common mode of teaching, particularly in large classes.

For example, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted an analysis of 225 studies and found that active learning increased test scores, but this was specifically for undergraduate STEM courses: “The data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the contained use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields” (8413).

However, disciplines in the humanities have employed active learning strategies like flipped learning for decades: “Procedurally, a humanities seminar is already ‘flipped.’ Exciting student interactivity in a ‘flipped’ engineering class is true of an ordinary humanities seminar” (Berens). So are active learning strategies only effective for certain disciplines? How can we make them effective in all disciplines?

Rather than a magic bullet, it may be more helpful to see active learning as a constellation of strategies that instructors link to the specific learning goals for their courses and match to the needs of their students. In doing, the disciplinary context is key. Some strategies work better than others for certain disciplines. Failing to link the strategies with student learning outcomes, student work and assessment could result in the failure of active learning strategies in the classroom. Claire L. Jarvis reports on Amanda Holton’s experience in her chemistry course at the University of California, Irvine:

Amanda Holton encountered the gap between the optimistic literature and reality when she flipped her large general chemistry class. . . . [Holton’s students] were in their first semester of college, nonmajors taking general chemistry as a prerequisite for their biology degrees. They weren’t strongly motivated to study chemistry and resented having to run through lectures and teach themselves outside the classroom. Exam performance only slightly improved compared with students who took the nonflipped version the year before.

It sounds like Holton’s flip could more directly address the kinds of students in her general course who, unlike majors, do not exhibit the same kind of motivation. Could Holton incorporate other activities that could spark their interest, perhaps linking chemistry to the world they experience everyday? Could she explain her use of the flipped classroom in a way that students see themselves participating in their own learning rather than being completely responsible for it?

Success with active learning strategies begins with the instructor intentionally incorporating and linking them to the goals of the course. Instructors are better positioned to get the most out of active learning when they keep disciplinary values in view.


Berens, Kathi Inman. “Double Flip: 3 Insights Flipping the Humanities Seminar.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 23 Jan 2014, https://hybridpedagogy.org/double-flip-3-insights-flipping-humanities-seminar/ (31 Jan 2020).

Freeman, Scott; Eddy, Sarah L; McDonough, Miles; Smith, Michelle K.; Okoroafor, Nnadozie; Jordt, Hannah and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” PNAS, 111.23 (2014): 8410-8415. doi/10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Jarvis, Claire L. “The Flip Side of Flipped Classrooms: Popular Teaching Method Doesn’t Always Work as Planned.” C&EN, 17 Jan 2020, https://cen.acs.org/education/undergraduate-education/flip-side-flipped-classrooms/98/i3, (31 Jan 2020).

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