Why students need to know the benefits of active learning

Negative correlation proves students associate the difficulty of active learning with feelings of learning less

Age of Awareness
5 min readDec 9, 2020


By Breanna Morsadi

Extensive research supports that students in active environments learn more than in passive, lecture based classrooms. Despite these findings, most institutions still follow traditional teaching methods. In addressing why schools remain resistant to active learning, the 2019 PNAS research correlates that while “students in active classrooms learn more, they feel like they learn less.” So the good news is, kids are learning more than they think! The bad news is, students don’t feel like they are learning more in active classrooms, when, in fact, they are. Such misperceptions are actually dangerous, as this negative correlation leads students to underestimate their progress, and in turn, misguides educators and schools to feel less confident about active classroom initiatives, or over confident with traditional learning initiatives based on inaccurate learning measurements. We need to support active learning initiatives now more than ever as we continue to shift to remote or hybrid learning due to the pandemic.

Why the negative correlation?

The PNAS study finds that this negative correlation is caused in part by “the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.” Students associate the difficulty of learning something new with feelings of learning less, as they naturally feel the struggle of early investigation and experimentation, whereas chances of failing, adapting and shifting understandings are high. The negative correlation can also be a result of the fact that “novices generally have poor metacognition and are not good at judging their own learning.” As a result, students rely on inaccurate metacognitive cues when they attempt to assess their own learning, therefore proving to be ill-equipped judges of their own abilities. Another factor for negative correlation is that “the students in this study had little prior experience with fully student-centered classrooms,” and are often unfamiliar with how to gauge active learning expectations from the get-go. To put it simply, the negative response to active learning is a result of the disfluency students experience in this cognitively challenging and unfamiliar environment.

What is the solution?

We know students need to get familiar with the unfamiliar in active environments. Here are three recommendations that can help students avoid these pitfalls and empower their deeper learning and development.

Recommendation #1 — Emphasize Reflection

Students need to be prepared, taught and mentored early on regarding the benefits of active learning to avoid the pitfalls of inherent disfluency. Students should understand that “increased cognitive struggle accompanying active learning is actually a sign that the learning is effective,” and shouldn’t fear the challenge associated with tackling new projects. Through reflective activities, educators can facilitate this dialogue and create a safe space for students to consider their own difficulty and ease working in new learning environments, through unfamiliar methods and/or with experimental content. Within Headrush, a learner-centered management system, students and educators use multiple feedback loops to reflect back on different project iterations and provide educator-to-peer, peer-to-peer, or self reflection feedback which heightens awareness of effective and ineffective learning strategies. Reflection is also a powerful tool within the Headrush app when co-designing group projects as feedback loops can also call attention to interpersonal skill development and social emotional learning. By emphasizing reflection in the classroom, students will be more fluent in active learning. Learning management systems also help online or hybrid schools manage active learning

Headrush Learner Reflection

Recommendation #2 — Make the process transparent

Headrush can help make learning transparent as a platform that facilitates active learning from start to finish, allowing students to become self-empowered learners. Students need to understand metacognition to be unreliable and perceptions of learning to be inaccurate, and therefore should look for new ways to track their learning and development. Headrush does this by capturing a living record of all learning experiences, both teacher and student led, with cyclic project planning, execution, assessment and reporting. This ultimately allows for deeper learning as students have a safe place to learn on their terms, move at their own pace and be accountable for their own projects, all while co-designing with multiple stakeholders. This is increasingly important when implementing remote learning measures as students’ learning journeys should be visible by all. It is invaluable to make student progress, within a project or across multiple projects, as transparent as possible across the board.

Headrush Project Task Board

Recommendation #3 — Connect active learning to clear curriculum goals, and review regularly

Active learning should be connected to clear curriculum goals, whether that be personalized by school, state-based reporting or mastery transcript competencies. Schools with progressive learning models have options now — authentic, active learning no longer requires traditional reporting to prove credibility. With a learning management system like Headrush in place, schools take the assumptions and guesswork out of reporting as all school/state or competency-based requirements can be co-managed by students and mentors, with customizable transcripts and tracking towards graduation. This movement to empower the modern day learner supports active, project-based learning and student autonomy. Most importantly, it increases the dialogue around deeper learning and helps students understand their unlimited potential when they have skin in the game.

Customize your learning targets in Headrush

Students must be fluent in the benefits of active learning in order to fully thrive in such an experiential setting. If not, their unreliable perceptions could favor inferior teaching methods over superior, research-based approaches. For example, “a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning,” when they are actually learning less. They interpret charisma, confidence, clarity, organization and flow or “performance” of teaching to be synonymous with their own development, when research shows they learn more in active environments. It is time schools acknowledge and adopt active learning initiatives.

HEADRUSH facilitates project-based learning from START to FINISH allowing students to become self-empowered learners, teachers to focus on mentoring great work and schools to be future-ready. Our Heroes of PBL series highlights individuals and organizations that are brave enough to break the mold of traditional education and are making a difference in the world of project-based learning. Join our community as we enhance dialog to support deeper learning. For more, follow @headrushapp on Twitter or visit us at https://headrushlearning.com.



Age of Awareness

We facilitate project-based learning from START to FINISH. Join our community as we enhance dialogue to support deeper learning.