Why Active Learning?

Students learn more when they are actively engaged.

We all learn when we are completely absorbed in what we are doing. Everyone experiences this, whether it is swimming laps in the pool, running, playing video games, cooking, or through some other fulfilling experience. This is often called being  “in the zone” or in a state of “flow”1. The same is true of students in school. 

Students learn more when they are active.  They learn by doing2, 3, 4, 5. Decades of research on active learning has produced a long list of positive outcomes. These benefits include:

  • Increased engagement, motivation, interest, and creativity6
  • Increased resilience due to stronger peer relationships7
  • Improved student attitude and self-esteem
  • Improved performance and retention, particularly for students from underrepresented groups8
  • Increased level of perceived control in their learning

Higher education reflects this reality as well. A meta-analysis of 225 studies conducted by Freeman and colleagues (2014) found that college students in traditional lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who participated in courses that employed active learning strategies. They also found such strategies increased student performance on assessments by about half a standard deviation. The results were consistent across subject areas.

These compelling findings suggest that providing support to educators to effectively incorporate active learning strategies should be a priority. Many teachers have a desire to move away from direct instruction to incorporate more active learning, but they need support and guidance for this way of teaching to be effective and sustainable.

Engaging students remains one of the greatest challenges for teachers.

In Gallup’s 20 years of researching student hope, engagement, and well-being, trends reveal that engagement begins to decline in Grade 5, and continues to drop each year through Grade 1210. By high school, more than half of students struggle to be active in their education, with 29% reporting “not engaged” and 24% “actively disengaged.” Low engagement compounds into poor performance in school and then later in the workplace.

Gallup also found that “engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future” compared to their disengaged peers11. Our own research substantiates the important connection between student engagement and academic performance.

Active, skills-forward learning is the catalyst for engaging students and increasing achievement.

At the heart of active, skills-forward learning is the cultivation of relevant skills. This includes skills that help students become curious, life-long learners (e.g., thinking critically, collaborating, solving problems), metacognitive skills (e.g. planning, setting goals, reflecting), executive functioning skills (e.g., focusing, organizing), and broader skills that help students define and become the best versions of themselves (e.g., communicating opening, learning from setbacks).

At Opportunity Education, we support teachers as they help students practice three categories of skills: Learning Skills, Work Skills, and Essential Habits. 

Practice is necessary to develop skills, but cultivating them requires effective feedback on the task at hand, and the processes used to accomplish tasks12, 13. Students better understand how to improve their work and develop their skills when they engage with their teachers and peers. Actively participating in the feedback process is necessary for students to progress – from planning and identifying goals to reflecting, evaluating, and revising their own work. Active learning, coupled with effective feedback, increases a student’s engagement and achievement14, 15

Active learning positions students as the owners of their learning. When students feel empowered, have autonomy to make choices, and develop metacognitive skills, they are motivated to work and capable of initiating actions toward their goals16. It is through these experiences that students learn how to learn17. And isn’t that exactly what we all hope students get out of their high school experience?

We help teachers engage students through active, skills-forward learning.

Our tools and resources help teachers engage students through a variety of active, skills-forward strategies in their classrooms, including:



1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

2. Bonwell, C.C. & Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports

3. Freeman, S. et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS, 111(23)

4. Kontra, C., Lyons, D. J., Fischer, S. M., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Physical experience enhances science learning. Psychological Science, 26(6), 737–749.

5. Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93, 223-231.

6. Owens, D.C., Sadler, T.D., Barlow, A.T.,  & Smith-Walters, C. (2017). Student motivation from and resistance to active learning rooted in essential science practices. Research in Science Education, 50(1), 253-277.

7. Cassidy, S. (2015). Resilience building in students: The role of academic self-efficacy. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. 

8. Snyder, J.J., Sloane, J.D., Dunk, R.D.P., & Wiles, J.R. (2016). Peer-led team learning helps minority students succeed. PLOS Biology, 14(3)

9. Edwards, S. (2015). Active Learning in the Middle Grades, Middle School Journal, 46:5, 26-32.

10. Busteed, B. (2013). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year. Gallup Blog.

11. Hodges, T. (2018). School engagement is more than just talk. Gallup Blog. 

12. Wiliam, D. (2016). The secret of effective feedback. ASCD, 73(7).

13. Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

14. Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112.

15. Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5-31.

16. Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182–185

17. Black, P.J., James, M., Pedder, D., & Mccormick, R. (2006). Learning how to learn and assessment for learning. Research Papers in Education, 21(2).