Active Learning versus Lecture: The False Dichotomy in the Research Literature

This guest blog post was contributed by Amedee Marchand Martella, PhD. Dr. Martella is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and earned her Doctor of Philosophy degree in cognitive psychology at Purdue University.

The default instructional method for K-12 and college teaching is lecture. In lecture, an instructor speaks while the students listen and occasionally take notes. Some people disparagingly refer to lecture as “sage on the stage” to emphasize the lack of student engagement in their own learning. Active learning is often proposed as an alternative to lecture because active learning instruction requires that students answer questions or otherwise demonstrate that they are learning in the moment.

Should We Cancel Lecture?

The once touted teaching method that dates back to the Middle Ages (Friesen, 2011) is now the subject of much criticism. The following statements showcase how unpopular lecture has become. Lecture is:

  • “the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting” (Wieman, 2014, p. 8320)
  • “[not] just boring…ineffective, too (Bajak, 2014, p. 1)
  • “outmoded, outdated, and inefficient” and “almost unethical” (Eric Mazur from Bajak, 2014, para. 4).

Defining Active Learning

These criticisms notwithstanding, the lecture method remains the prominent mode of instruction in college courses (Stains et al., 2018). Given that this method is said to be “long overdue for revision” (Westervelt, 2016, para. 2), we may ask which method should replace traditional lecture. In many research circles, the answer would be a resounding, “active learning!” A seminal and common definition of active learning is “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. iii). A more recent definition that was established by combining the definitions of contributing discipline-based educational research teams is, “Active learning is a classroom situation in which the instructor and instructional activities explicitly afford students agency for their learning” (Lombardi et al., 2021, p. 16). Perhaps most importantly, active learning is often seen as the opposite of the traditional lecture method; lecture reflects passive learning, and active learning reflects – as its name implies – active learning. In fact, in a substantial proportion of comparisons in the research literature, a dichotomy is presented with lecture representing one condition and active learning representing the other.

Given that active learning is often contrasted with the lecture method, the research literature makes it appear as though active learning is devoid of any didactic instruction. Because the definitions of active learning are so general, it is unsurprising that the use of active learning in practice varies widely in intensity and implementation (Freeman et al., 2014; Martella et al., 2021a). This variation was said to include “approaches as diverse as occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (Freeman et al., 2014, p. 8410). Even with these variations, Freeman et al., (2014) found in the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis on active learning and lecture that student performance on examinations improved by around 6% (or .47 standard deviations for the overall effect size) under active learning. An important and overlooked detail about these variations is that these active learning conditions could include up to 90% of class time dedicated to lecture and still be categorized as “active learning” (see Freeman et al., 2014, p. 8414). Consequently, the lecture conditions could include just under 10% of class time dedicated to active learning and still be categorized as “traditional lecture.”

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Is Active Learning Better Than Traditional Lecture?

Before we can conclude that active learning is different than lecture and that active learning is a more effective instructional method, we need to understand how active learning methods are implemented in the classroom. To further investigate the variation within active learning studies, my co-authors and I conducted a systematic review of 57 comparison studies (i.e., active learning versus lecture) published in three prominent science education journals (see Martella et al., 2021a). We focused on three sources of variation in active learning courses to determine how active learning methods are implemented in the classroom: (a) the active learning activities used in the course, (b) other pedagogical features (e.g., lecture) used in the course, and (c) course structure/design. For the other pedagogical features used in the classroom, we found that most active learning courses contained a significant lecture component: 72.4% of the active learning courses devoted at least 20% of the main class session to lecture. Despite the significant amount of lecture often found in active learning conditions, claims that active learning is more effective than lecture are commonly made in empirical studies that compare the continuous exposition of lecture to interactive lecture rather than the continuous exposition of lecture to no lecture (Zakrajsek, 2018). The problematic nature of these claims is illuminated through an analogous example provided by Zakrajsek (2018): If researchers wanted to determine the effects of a drug intervention versus an exercise intervention for weight loss, then they should design an experiment to test a Drug condition against an Exercise condition. If instead, those researchers designed an experiment to test the relative efficacy of each intervention by comparing a Drug condition to a Drug and Exercise condition, then the researchers would only be able to make claims about the effect of drugs on weight loss compared to the combined effects of drugs and exercise on weight loss. They would not be able to conclude in the second scenario that exercise is more beneficial than the drug even if the Drug and Exercise condition led to greater weight loss. Although the errors in these analogous conclusions are apparent, these types of methods are implemented to compare instructional delivery systems and provide the basis for subsequent claims about the relative efficacy of lecture and active learning. That is, researchers incorrectly conclude that active learning is more effective than lecture when they compare Lecture and Active Learning Combined conditions with Lecture Alone conditions.

To examine the accuracy of claims made about active learning and lecture, my co-authors and I conducted a citation context analysis to analyze the quotation accuracy of those who cited the prominent meta-analysis discussed above (see Martella et al., 2021b). Quotation accuracy reflects the number of citation errors that relate to direct quotes, paraphrased statements, interpretations, and claims attributed to an author or authors. Therefore, we examined the alignment between assertions in the citing text that related to the efficacy of lecture and active learning and what was explicitly stated in the cited meta-analysis. Through our analysis, we found, among other results, that the percentage of unsupported assertions was 26.01% and that the percentage of articles containing at least one unsupported assertion was 34.77%. Unsupported assertions included: (a) specific activities/approaches (e.g., group discussions, flipped classes, inquiry-based learning) other than the general approach of active learning are effective; (b) lecture is ineffective; (c) active learning is beneficial for specific populations/course topics (e.g., minorities, women, genetics content, calculus); and (d) active learning improves measures above and beyond learning/retention. One issue that may contribute to several of these inaccuracies is that there were only two types of instructional methods listed in the meta-analysis—one type was lecture, and the other type was active learning. The conclusions that can accurately be drawn are quite limited; we can only say that active learning (as an umbrella term) was generally more effective than lecture (as an umbrella term). However, we cannot pinpoint why active learning courses were generally more effective nor can we make claims that any specific type of active learning (e.g., group discussions, flipped classes, inquiry-based learning) is effective. We also cannot say that lecture is ineffective. For specific conclusions to be drawn (e.g., those relating to which forms of active learning are most effective), we need a systematic study of this approach by isolating and comparing defined and unambiguous features of active learning implementations.

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Types of Active Learning

To compare different forms of active learning, my co-authors and I systematically studied the effectiveness of four different active learning implementations in teaching elementary school students how to design simple experiments (see Martella et al., 2020). The four conditions included: (a) modeling/modeling/activity; (b) modeling/direct guidance/activity; (c) minimal guidance/direct guidance/activity; and (d) minimal guidance/minimal guidance/activity. In the modeling phase, the instructor explained and demonstrated how to use a ramp to determine how far a ball will roll. In the direct guidance phase, students set up their own ramps with feedback at various stages from the instructor. In the minimal guidance phase, students set up their own ramps and received only questions about their design from the instructor without further feedback. All students were instructed to perform a methodologically sound experiment with the ramp for the activity. These conditions differed in how much didactic instruction and guidance was provided to students with modeling/modeling/activity (i.e., lecture-based learning) and modeling/direct guidance/activity (i.e., direct instruction) having the most didactic instruction and guidance. Learners performed better on the hands-on ramp activity (dependent measure 1) after participating in the modeling/direct guidance/activity as opposed to the minimal guidance/minimal guidance/activity condition. Additionally, learners in all four conditions had significant learning gains from pre- to posttest (dependent measure 2). Learners performed better overall with modeling/direct guidance/activity followed by modeling/modeling/activity with these two conditions producing the largest effect sizes. In sum, these active learning conditions resulted in different learning gains despite all conditions being categorized as active learning. My next step in the research process is to compare different dosage amounts and schedules of active learning and lecture. Dosage amount refers to the percentage of class time dedicated to lecture and active learning. Dosage schedule refers to the integration and sequencing of lecture and active learning. My goal is to compare various percentages and sequences of lecture and active learning to determine optimal amounts and presentation orders of didactic and hands-on instruction.


Although I am in cognitive psychology, I have an appreciation for what behavior analysts do (my parents are both behaviorists) and am hoping my post will inform members of the behavioral community about a topic that likely has or will affect them, especially those in college-level faculty positions. I also write this post as a call for more behavior analysts to conduct research on which active learning and other pedagogical approaches should be used (or avoided) at the college level. Cognitively-oriented psychologists/educational psychologists and constructivists seem to have the market on this research. Behavior analysts have already contributed a great deal to the field of education and active learning research as evidenced by the Technology of Teaching (Skinner, 1968, 2003), Personalized System of Instruction (i.e., the Keller Plan; Eyre, 2007), and precision teaching techniques such as SAFMEDS (Quigley et al., 2018), to name a few. Given that behavior analysts developed instructional methods and activities that could be applied to college classes years before other researchers began writing about active learning, it is my hope that more college-level active learning research will be conducted by behavior analysts and published in active learning and educational psychology journals.

Image provided courtesy of Monstera under Pexels License


Bajak, A. (2014, May 12). Lectures aren’t just boring, they’re ineffective, too, study finds. Science

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ED336049). ERIC.

Eyre, H. L. (2007). Keller’s personalized system of instruction: Was it a fleeting fancy or is there a revival on the horizon? The Behavior Analyst Today, 8(3), 317-324.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410–8415.

Friesen, N. (2011). The lecture as a transmedial pedagogical form: A historical analysis. Educational Researcher, 40(3), 95–102.

Lombardi, D., Shipley, T. F., Astronomy Team, Biology Team, Chemistry Team, Engineering Team, Geography Team, Geoscience Team, and Physics Team. (2021). The curious construct of active learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 22(1), 8–43.

Martella, A. M., Klahr, D., & Li, W. (2020). The relative effectiveness of different active learning implementations in teaching children how to design simple experiments. Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(8), 1582-1596.

Martella, A. M., Lovett, M. C., & Ramsay, L. (2021a). Implementing active learning: A critical examination of sources of variation in active learning science courses. Journal on Excellence in College, 32(1), 67–96.

Martella, A. M., Yatcilla, J., Martella, R. C., Marchand-Martella, N. E., Karatas, T., Ozen, Z., Park, H., Simpson, A., & Karpicke, J. D. (2021b). Quotation accuracy matters: An examination of how an influential meta-analysis on active learning has been cited. Review of Educational Research, 9(2), 272–308.

Quigley, S. P., Peterson, S. M., Frieder, J. E., & Peck, K. M. (2018). A review of SAFMEDS: Evidence for procedures, outcomes and directions for future research. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 41(1), 283-301.

Skinner, B. F. (1968, 2003). The technology of teaching. B. F. Skinner Foundation.

Stains, M., Harshman, J., Barker, M. K., Chasteen, S. V., Cole, R., DeChenne- Peters, S. E., Eagan, M. K., Esson, J. M., Knight, J. K., Laski, F. A., Levis- Fitzgerald, M., Lee, C. J., Lo, S. M., McDonnell, L. M., McKay, T. A., Michelotti, N., Musgrove, A., Palmer, M. S., Plank, K. M., . . . Young, A. M. (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities: Lecture is prominent, but practices vary. Science, 359(6383), 1468–1470.

Westervelt, E. (2016, April 14). A Nobel Laureate’s education plea: Revolutionalize teaching. nprEd.

Wieman, C. E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8319–8320.

Zakrajsek, T. (2018). Reframing the lecture versus active learning debate: Suggestions for a new way forward. Education in the Health Professions, 1(1), 1–3.

Image credits:

[1] Cover image provided courtesy of Pixabay under Pexels License

[2] Image provided courtesy of mentatdgt under Pexels License

[3] Image provided courtesy of Katerina Holmes under Pexels License

[4] Image provided courtesy of Monstera under Pexels License