Blog 52


Do you ever wonder what Active Learning could ‘taste’ like?

Andrea Valente – Teaching Commons Tutor

The Teaching Commons hosted its monthly meeting of the Journal Club on this past February 15th, 2017. Our discussion of the article “Is active learning like broccoli? Student perceptions of active learning in large lecture classes” (Smith and Cardaciotto, 2011) was a thought-provoking study on undergraduates’ perceptions of active learning activities to complement traditional lecture approach.

The article is a comparative study based on a quantitative methodology about students’ perceptions of active learning and content review activities as out-of-class group exercises to complement the lectures of an Introductory Psychology class with 1091 undergraduates. The authors’ decision to conduct such experiment is based on previous scholarly researches that suggest active learning is associated with positive outcomes. Hence, they raise three hypotheses on students’ perception of active learning: 1- students would report greater retention of the material; 2- they would report more engagement with the course material; and 3- they would show more positive attitudes about the course.

Since Smith and Cardaciotto acknowledge the difficulties in implementing active learning activities during large lecture-based classes, the authors designed post-lecture group exercises in which 550 students would be assigned active learning activities and 541 students would be assigned content review activities. The two samples would be randomly assigned in groups of 6, and students were required to purchase an instructional manual for the activities to be used along the semester. The active learning activities consisted of exercises that used highly cognitive skills (e.g. apply, analyze, and create); whereas content review condition would employ game-like passive activities (e.g. crossword puzzles, word scrambles, and true-false games). Students would complete an end-of-the semester survey through self-report. The authors would run ANOVAs to test the three hypotheses.

As predicted, in the active learning condition students reported greater retention and more effective engagement with the course material; however, the third hypothesis was not supported: students showed more positive attitude (enjoyment) in the content review condition than in the active learning condition. Thus, the authors conclude that active learning activate more highly cognitive abilities and memory that benefit learning outcomes, but it seems to be a less enjoyable intellectual experience for students, who might taste it ‘like broccoli’.

Our discussion started with questioning the authors’ use of ‘like broccoli’ to describe active learning from students’ perception.  Our participants suggested and discussed other comparisons for active learning such as ‘like dentist’, ‘like veggie burger’, and ‘like physical exercises’.  The essential meaning agreed is that active learning provides more positive outcomes –‘it’s good for you’ –, but it demands more intellectual efforts from students, who might not be used to, and consequently, would not enjoy performing the activities. In this regard, our discussion questioned the design of active learning instruction and group work dynamics used mostly in first year undergraduate courses, which could impact on students’ perception of active learning strategies. Since most of the active learning techniques require group work strategies, students should receive appropriate guidelines to assist them to work collaboratively in team projects. Similarly, our discussion raised questions on how to prepare faculty to incorporate active learning strategies during their lecture, and on how to assist them to design active learning activities. The usual resistance seen among instructors to incorporate active learning strategies in their lesson plan might be simply because they do not feel well equipped and confident enough to design effective exercises that promote students’ active learning. As consequence, the traditional ‘silent, passive, and sleep-inducing’ lectures seem to prevail in most of the large classes of introductory undergraduate courses. To reverse this situation, do you think instructors need a more solid, consistent and better defined ‘pedagogy of active learning’ to help them with instructional design for their courses?

What other opportunities can you see for further research or exploration on this topic? How might your students benefit from this research?

Please join the conversation using the comments box below.

The Journal Club is an opportunity for colleagues interested in exploring innovation in teaching and learning to collaboratively read and discuss literature in the field. Participants are provided with a journal article identified as a topic of potential interest to be discussed in an informal gathering at the Teaching Commons.

Do you have an article to share or a topic you would like to discuss? Are you interested in leading a conversation of the Journal Club? Contact Lisa Endersby, Educational Developer (

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Comment on “Blog 52

  1. I enjoyed reading through the article. It is not the first time that i have heard that students don’t like experiential learning because it is more work and effortful ie like eating your brocolli or engaging in exercise!

    Before coming up with a defined pedagogy of active learning I think one has to address the building of a course and a half for students. ie having them sit in a 3 hour lecture then expecting them to go off and work in groups, and thus spending additional time on the content (I assume more so than just the time they spend on reading and remembering what was in the textbook to be able to perform well on their multiple choice exams). I think if someone is going to do this they need to have a blended format course or flipped classroom.

    Indeed, I would also consider the impact/difficulty of encouraging active learning in groups for our commuter student population and whether or not they can get together with their group mates to engage in the active learning component.

    Finally, i would want to know whether the students who engaged in the games (cross word puzzles, word scrambles) for the Content review condition, simply liked that better because they were engaged in games they could do on their own. Perhaps that wasn’t the best control group 🙂

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