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Active Learning Requires Learning - Not Just Activity

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Novel Pedagogies 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.138.1 - 23.138.9



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Paper Authors


Shannon Rhey Butler Purdue University

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Shannon Butler recieved her B.S. in Applied Biology for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and is currently a PhD. student at Purdue University studying Ecology, Evolution & Behavior. The work presented in this paper was part of her senior thesis at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

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Kay C Dee Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Kay C Dee is a Professor of Applied Biology and Biomedical Engineering and the Associate Dean for Learning and Technology at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. The work presented in this paper is part of a year-long independent undergraduate thesis completed by Shannon Butler, advised by KC Dee.

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Active Learning Requires Learning - Not Just ActivityDoes the use of active learning exercises in a traditional classroom tend to yield better studentoutcomes because of the learning value of the exercises, or because the students simply “wakeup” and become energized? To explore this question, we compared undergraduateengineering/science students’ retention of information presented in four different contexts, allwithin a standard lecture classroom setting: one in which the information was presented and thenimmediately reiterated during short active learning exercises (“mentally-active breaks”); one inwhich the information was presented immediately after a short session involving light physicalactivity (“physically-active breaks”) that did not reiterate any information; one in which theinformation of interest was presented immediately after a mentally-active break that focused onanother topic; and one in the absence of any breaks from the lecture. We created these contextsusing the same pre-recorded lecture (with pauses to direct breaks as needed) followedimmediately by the same information recall test in three groups of students. Twenty-threestudents participated in three mentally-active breaks during a class period, twelve participated inthree physically-active breaks during a class period, and nine watched the lecture with no breaks.We found that in the latter two of the three breaks, the mentally-active break that reiteratedinformation significantly increased student recall of that information, compared to the recall ofstudents in the group who took no breaks and to the recall of students who participated inphysically-active breaks (break 1: p = 0.785, F= 0.24; break 2: p < 0.001, F = 12.7; break 3: p <0.001, F = 19.3). However, students who participated in mentally-active breaks did not exhibitsignificantly better recall of the information presented immediately after such breaks (when, intheory, students should still have been relatively mentally alert). Additionally, students whoparticipated in physically-active breaks showed no significant difference in the recall of theinformation presented immediately after those breaks (when, in theory, students should still havebeen relatively energized/alert), compared to the recall of students who took no breaks during thelecture. Within the limitations of the small sample size of our investigation, these data suggestthat student learning is more strongly influenced by the pedagogical design or learning value ofactive learning exercises, rather than by becoming more alert or energized. 

Butler, S. R., & Dee, K. C. (2013, June), Active Learning Requires Learning - Not Just Activity Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19152

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