What to know about active learning and college student identities (2023)

Fifty-fivepercent of students say a teaching style that didn’t work for them has impeded their success in a class since starting college. That makes it the No.1 reported barrier to academic success in the recent Student Voice survey of 3,004 undergraduates on academic life, conducted in January by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse. Here’s a breakdown of which students feel especially impacted by teaching style, why they may see this as a barrier and how active learning can help.

Disproportionately Dissatisfied

Among students with learning disabilities or related conditions (n=650):

  • Teaching style is still the top reported barrier—with the share of students flagging it soaring to 67percent. Of these students who intend to graduate within the standard time frame for their institution type (two or four years), the share is larger still: 70percent.
  • There is a strong desire for professors to experiment with different teaching styles. Fifty-sevenpercent of these students, versus 50percent of those without learning disabilities or related conditions, express that professors mixing things up would help. Some five in 10 think that professors being more flexible about attendance and/or participation would promote their academic success, compared to four in 10 for all respondents.

Different demographic, similar story: Relatively more LGBTQIA+ students (n=899) cite teaching style as a barrier to academic success than do their straight peers, at 60percent versus 53percent, respectively. And LGBTQIA+ students are likelier to say they want professors to be more flexible with participation and attendance, at five in 10 versus four in 10.

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(Video) Exploring the experiences of students with covert social identities in active learning classrooms

Another consideration is mental health. Both LGBTQIA+ students and those with learning disabilities and related conditions are likelier than other subgroups to cite mental health struggles as a barrier to academic success: nearly six in 10 LGBTQIA+ students compared to three in 10 straight students and nearly six in 10 students with learning disabilities compared to three in 10 respondents without such conditions.

Breaking Down the Concern

What are students really saying when they object to teaching style? Students who cite teaching style as a barrier to a success are more likely to name overly difficult material or exams as another barrier (58percent versus 49percent for the whole group). So students may associate teaching style with how hard a class is or isn’t.

But students with teaching-style concerns are significantly likelier than the group over all to say they want their professors to experiment with different teaching approaches, too. This suggests that students concerned about teaching style are balking at instructional strategies at least as much as at perceived difficulty. (And this is only amplified for students with learning disabilities and related conditions, who, again, are already more likely to report mental health struggles as a barrier to academic success.)

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Which instructional strategies? Research suggests that conventional lecturing remains the dominant instructional approach in higher education, especially in the natural sciences, where many of the studies on active learning are happening.

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So it stands to reason that students in the recent Student Voice survey are at least partly rejecting conventional lecturing. Preliminary data from a new Student Voice survey of 1,250 undergraduates somewhat support this idea: the largest share of students (36percent) say they prefer an interactive lecture—in which the professor breaks at least once to ask students to complete a specific learning task related to the material—over other class formats, including the traditional lecture. (Full results of that survey are coming soon.)

The Active Learning Link

What’s a better approach than traditional lecturing? The literature offers a clear answer: active learning.

Roughly defined, active learning is instruction that demands students actively participate in the knowledge-making process. Active learning exists on a spectrum—from a single interactive moment during a professor-centered class period to an entirely student-centered experience in which the instructor facilitates learning among peers. Examples of active learning strategies include:

  • Classroom debates
  • Class polls
  • Case studies
  • Think-pair-shares
  • Individual reflection
  • Just-in-time teaching

How students feel about active learning is a bit complicated. Anecdotally, many students find traditional lectures to be less than engaging. But active learning can defy students’ expectations of what’s required of them in a college class and push them out of their comfort zones. One widely cited 2019 study on active learning led by physicist Louis Deslauriers of Harvard University found that students in an active learning classroom felt like they were learning less but actually learned more than students in a lecture-only class—something Deslauriers and his colleagues attributed to the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.

Yet however students feel about active learning, study after study demonstrates that students learn more from active learning than from lectures—and that the positive effects of active learning are especially pronounced for historically marginalized groups.

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“Sustained lecturing, or a chalk-and-talk approach, continues to be the dominant mode of instruction across all subject areas—which, as the survey data strongly indicate, leaves more than half of learners behind,” says Thomas J. Tobin, a teaching and learning consultant and founding member of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring. “The survey data about the perceived fit of instructor methods underlines a challenge that we’ve known about for a long time: our teaching methods have long been out of step with the learning needs of our students.”

Experts therefore recommend using active learning strategies to reach students dissatisfied with current instructional approaches—with some major caveats about sensitivities to student identities.

Inclusive Teaching

Sara Brownell, a professor of life sciences and director of the Research for Inclusive STEM Education Center at Arizona State University, studies how to make science learning environments more inclusive, with a focus on concealable, stigmatized identities. These include LGBTQIA+ identities and learning disabilities and related conditions. Brownell and her colleagues have found, for example, that:

  • Students say clicker-style questions and group work during active learning can both increase and decrease their anxiety, based on how they’re used. Meanwhile, students say that cold- and random call–type questions only increase anxiety, based on fear of negative evaluation by peers.
  • Active learning classes make students’ LGBTQIA+ identities more relevant due to increased interactions among students during group work, with implications for student learning.

How Sara Brownell, a professor at Arizona State who studies how to make science learning environments more inclusive,makes active learning inclusive in her own large classes:

  • She surveys students about their identities at the beginning of the semester and shares anonymized patterns with the class, so that students with, say, mental health concerns, know they’re not alone.
  • She uses what’s referred to as instructor talk, or non-content-specific language, to create a positive classroom culture and demystify some of her pedagogical choices, including her belief that group work builds students’ skills.
  • She gives students name tents (paper name placards) so that she and they know each other’s names and, where they feel comfortable, pronouns.
  • She gives small groups an icebreaker during active learning, such as directing the student with the longest hair in the group to speak first. And she travels around the classroom to speak with students and collect worksheets so that no one has to yell out an answer to the whole class.

Variety, flexibility and compassion underpin Brownell’s approach to active learning. “I’m a huge proponent of active learning, but our guiding hypothesis is that with active learning, we’re changing the dynamics of the classroom,” Brownell tells Inside Higher Ed. “So for different student groups that haven’t necessarily been explored through the lens of active learning, we’re starting to see issues for them. That doesn’t mean we want to throw active learning out the window. That doesn’t mean we want people to go back to traditional lecture. It means we need to be much more thoughtful about how we’re teaching using active learning.” Actions include, Brownell says:

  • Using different active learning strategies so that all students get used to a variety of experiences, some of which they may prefer over others.
  • Giving all students worksheets during group work, to promote engagement and discourage any one person taking over.
  • Giving students the option of working with each other or working independently when they need a break.
  • Incentivizing attendance via class credit, but building in “a certain number of drops, because life happens.”
  • Normalizing mental health being as important as physical health by indicating support and being “kind” when things come up.

“I let my students know at the beginning of class that my goal is for them to succeed, and I am going to work as hard as I can to get them to learn the material,” she adds. “We know that feeling like the instructor cares is so important to student success.”

‘Listen to Students’

Dynamic teaching can work for neurodivergent students, with some clarifications, says Liz Norell, an associate professor of political science at Chattanooga State Community College and faculty developer who identifies as neurodivergent. Autistic students might have sensitivities around noise levels, lack of predictability or forced social interactions, for example. So options surrounding participation, such as “back-channel” ways to contribute class discussions, matter.

Norell has found that herstudents are most enthusiastic about learning when she’s given them more control or agency over their learning—namely, the work they’re completing and how it’s shared.

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“A lot of this evolution in my own teaching has come from embracing [Universal Design for Learning] and backwards design—focusing really intentionally on what skills students should have when they leave a class I’m teaching and then imagining, in the broadest terms possible, how they might achieve those skills.”

Norell adds an important clarification on identities and diagnoses: that many students have mental health issues or are neurodivergent, “but haven’t had the resources or opportunities for formal testing or diagnosis and hence cannot get official accommodations from the school.” In this and other respects, she says, it’s important to “listen to students.”

Faculty developer Karen Costa, who is currently writing a book on supporting college students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, agrees that the accommodations model of higher education translates to a “huge population of students who need support who just aren’t getting it.” Accessibility should be “in the water,” or the norm, not the exception, she says.

Costa adds this: “Higher ed executive leaders are guided by enrollment numbers yet fail to see the connection between designing for accessibility and student persistence, strangely. The hold of the power structures in higher ed is very strong. Those who figure out that truly supporting students and faculty by redesigning our work for the students, faculty and staff we have now, not those of 400 years ago, will create the institutions that will survive this volatile era.”

Active (Inclusive) Learning: Good Teaching and Good Policy

In the Student Voice survey, Black, Hispanic, Asian and first-generation students were not more likely than their white peers to say to cite teaching style as a barrier to academic success, nor were they more likely to say they wanted professors to experiment with different teaching styles. Still, it’s worth underscoring that active learning has been shown to disproportionately benefit these students.

  • One study from 2014 found that a “moderate-structure” intervention increased course performance for all students, but worked especially well for Black and first-generation students, halving the Black-white achievement gap and closing the achievement gap with continuing-generation students.
  • Another meta-study from 2020 found that active learning benefits all students but offers disproportionate benefits for individuals from underrepresented groups.

The latter analysis showed that active learning reduced achievement gaps in examination scores by a third and narrowed gaps in passing rates by nearly half. Crucially, it also found that how much active learning students are doing matters, as only classes with high-intensity active learning narrowed achievement gaps.

The study further explains the variation in efficacy within active learning studies with a “heads-and-hearts hypothesis.” In other words, “meaningful reductions in achievement gaps only occur when course designs combine deliberate practice with inclusive teaching.”

Scott Freeman, teaching professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington and co-author of the 2020 meta-study, says that there is still a disconnect between institutions’ commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion pledges and what’s known about how students learn.

“College campuses are just full of people very concerned about DEI, but then you go into your classrooms and they’re teaching in a way that’s just really punishing to low-income and Black and brown students,” Freeman says. “Institutions need to take the data seriously. If we hire people who are trained to do effective, evidence-based teaching and reward them, we can achieve equity and student outcomes. But the fact is, we’re not doing that.”

Regan Gurung, professor and director of the general psychology program at Oregon State University, who studies teaching and learning, doesn’t necessary like the term “teaching style,” due to its potential to reinforce the debunked notion that individual students have fixed or optimal ways of acquiring knowledge. (He actually addresses the invalid science behind learning styles with his classes each semester because he says the “myth” remains pervasive in K-12 schools.)

What is indisputable, though, Gurung says, is that “good teaching is inclusive teaching.” This means designing a course that is well structured, adopting evidence-based teaching practices and providing students with multiple ways to participate.

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“When you’re thinking about teaching, you think about the student-student interaction. You think about the student-instructor interaction. And you think about the student-content interaction,” he says. “Whenever we’re thinking about course design, we should be saying, ‘What are we doing to help students interact with each other, with the material and with us?’”

Read more about Student Voice survey findings on what students want and don’t want from their professors. Share your feedback here.


What are the identities of college students? ›

Age, gender, religious or spiritual affiliation, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are all identities.

Why is active learning important in college? ›

Active learning improves student outcomes

The benefits to using such activities are many, including improved critical thinking skills, increased retention and transfer of new information, increased motivation, improved interpersonal skills, and decreased course failure (Prince, 2004).

How does identity impact a college student's experience? ›

To sum up, the identity that is associated with the subject or discipline of study affects students view about themselves and affect the others views' about them. This consequently makes the students behave in certain ways; and that has an influence on their learning experience.

How does active learning affect students? ›

Active learning develops students' autonomy and their ability to learn. Active learning gives students greater involvement and control over their learning. This means that students are better able to continue learning once they have left school and college.

Why is student identity important? ›

Academic identity is grounded in the way students assess their own intelligence, and it sits at the core of their success. If they are not empowered to feel like worthy contributors to learning, kids are far more likely to disengage from their classes and assume that they hold little worth in scholarly settings.

What are some questions about identity for college students? ›

What part of your identity do you think people first notice about you? What part of your identity are you most comfortable sharing with other people? What part of your identity are you least comfortable sharing with other people? What part of your identity are you most proud of?

What is the main goal in active learning? ›

Active learning helps students reflect on their understanding by encouraging them to make connections between their prior knowledge and new concepts. Often, active learning tasks ask students to make their thinking explicit, which also allows instructors to gauge student learning.

What are the 5 types of active learning? ›

5 Types of Active Learning and How They're Beneficial
  • Take Notes.
  • Write About It.
  • Teach Someone Else.
  • Move Around.
  • Take Breaks.
  • Learning for Life.
Nov 8, 2021

How do you build student identity? ›

Strategies for action:
  1. Build relationships with students based on trust and mutual respect.
  2. Build collaborative relationships with families to support learning, safety, and wellbeing.
  3. Support positive peer relationships.
  4. Model positive and caring teacher-teacher relationships.

How is identity connected to learning? ›

For learners, concepts of identity may be particularly formative and fluid. Exploring identities through deep qualitative analysis can help us to understand and address challenges related to student transitions and progression, diversity and inclusivity, transformative learning, or feelings of community and belonging.

What are 4 influences on identity? ›

Identity formation and evolution are impacted by a variety of internal and external factors like society, family, loved ones, ethnicity, race, culture, location, opportunities, media, interests, appearance, self-expression and life experiences.

What are the pros and cons of active learning? ›

Advantages and Disadvantages of Active Learning
Advantages (Pros)Disadvantages (Cons)
1. Prolonged Engagement and Motivation1. It is Time Consuming
2. You Learn Information within its Context2. Sometimes Memorization is Necessary
3. You Learn from Trial and Error3. It Discourages Listening to Elders
3 more rows
Mar 3, 2020

How does active learning promote student engagement? ›

Promoting student engagement through active learning

Strategies include, but are not limited to, question-and-answer sessions, discussion, interactive lecture (in which students respond to or ask questions), quick writing assignments, hands-on activities, and experiential learning.

How is active learning more effective? ›

Improves critical thinking

Active learning shifts the focus of learning – from passively (and possibly unquestioningly) digesting information to being accountable for actively engaging with sources and perspectives.

What is student identity in education? ›

Student academic identity is defined as the appropriation of academic values and practices within a sense of self, reflecting the willingness and commitment to the practices of the academic community.

How do I talk about my students identities? ›

Warm-up Discussion
  1. Talk with your students about their identities and what makes them who they are. List words that help describe a person's identity such as: gender, race, religion and ability. ...
  2. Pick a well-known character from a book that the class has read recently or a historical or famous figure.

How do you honor student identity? ›

What Adults Can Do To Honor Student Experience and Identities
  1. Asset-based view of youth and unfamiliar identity groups. ...
  2. Commitment to avoiding and challenging stereotypes. ...
  3. Sense of openness and cultural humility. ...
  4. Willingness to let students define their own identities.
Nov 14, 2022

What are key things about identity? ›

Aspects of Identity
  • Gender. Your gender is your culturally assigned or self-identified association with characteristics including man (masculine), woman (feminine), and transgender. ...
  • Sex. ...
  • Race. ...
  • Ethnicity. ...
  • Social Class. ...
  • Ability and Disability. ...
  • Profession. ...
  • Relationship Status.

What are the key ideas of identity? ›

Key facets of identity—like gender , social class, age, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, religion, age and disability—play significant roles in determining how we understand and experience the world, as well as shaping the types of opportunities and challenges we face.

What does identity mean in college essay? ›

Remember what these colleges are trying to understand: who you are and what has influenced you to become the person you are today (identity), where you come from (community), and how you might be able to add to the diversity of their college campus.

What are the three basic elements of active learning include? ›

This process relates to the three learning domains referred to as knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA). This taxonomy of learning behaviors can be thought of as "the goals of the learning process." In particular, students must engage in such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

What are three characteristics of active learning? ›

Characteristics of active learning include:
  • being able to focus on an activity.
  • show high levels of energy and enthusiasm.
  • involved and able to concentrate.
  • pay attention to details.
  • able to keep trying.
  • keep going when challenges occur.
  • enjoy achieving what was set out to do.

What three elements does active learning require? ›

Finally, Graffam (2007) suggests that active learning has three components: intentional engagement, purposeful observation, and critical reflection.

What are good examples of active learning? ›

Other examples of active learning techniques include role-playing, case studies, group projects, think-pair-share, peer teaching, debates, Just-in-Time Teaching, and short demonstrations followed by class discussion.

How do you implement active learning? ›

  1. Step 1: Analyzing needs for implementing an active learning strategy. ...
  2. Step 2: Identify topic and questions. ...
  3. Step 3: Identify learning objectives & outcomes. ...
  4. Step 4: Plan and design the activity. ...
  5. Step 5: Identify sequence of learning events. ...
  6. Step 6: Evaluate and assess.

What is active learning at university? ›

Active learning is an approach, rather than a fixed set of activities. It can include any activity that encourages students to take an active, engaged part in the learning process within the classroom, such as: group discussions. student presentations. experiments.

What are the 8 social identities? ›

The “Big 8” socially constructed identities are: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality and socioeconomic status.

What creates class identity? ›

Class identity is defined as how a person or group of persons think of themselves in relation to others in society based on their economic and social position. While defining and measuring economic status is quite similar across cultures, the same cannot be said for social status.

What is a positive learner identity? ›

Positive learner identity may be conceptualised in terms of 'learning wisdom',[vi] or knowing why, what, when and how to learn: in other words, being ready, willing and able to engage in the learning process.

What is the importance of self-identity in learning? ›

Firstly, maintaining self-identity is important because it strengthens your character. That is, when we know who we are, have confidence in our self and are able to identify our strengths, we emerge as stronger individuals. Secondly, it keeps us unique and distinguishes us from everyone else.

How can you become aware of the varying identities of your students? ›

Take the time to learn about each student's cultural background, hobbies, learning styles, and what makes them unique. Demonstrating a genuine interest in learning about each student and their culture will help establish trust and allow you to form a bond with them so they feel valued.

What are the 3 major concerns in building an identity? ›

Identity formation involves three key tasks: Discovering and developing one's potential, choosing one's purpose in life, and finding opportunities to exercise that potential and purpose.

What is the biggest influence on identity? ›

Culture and ethnicity are factors that a person is born into and have a dramatic influence on identity because they create a perception of who a person is. External factors such as location, media, family and friends, and society are all more complex influences on identity.

What are the 5 types of identity? ›

Multiple types of identity come together within an individual and can be broken down into the following: cultural identity, professional identity, ethnic and national identity, religious identity, gender identity, and disability identity.

What are the three reasons that active learning work well? ›

Here are the benefits of active learning in the classroom:
  • Active learning helps students to develop their collaborative skills.
  • Students will learn to take risks and build self-confidence.
  • Students will gain motivation as they prepare ahead of time.
  • Active learning can boost creative thinking skills.

What are limitations of active learning? ›

Active learning disadvantages

On the flip side, active learning methods: Require more spontaneous and flexible lesson plans. Limit the amount of material that can be presented at once. Create the potential for distractions if students are not monitored.

What is the difference between learning and active learning? ›

Active learning requires students to think, discuss, challenge, and analyze information. Passive learning requires learners to absorb, assimilate, consider, and translate information. Active learning encourages conversation and debate, while passive learning encourages active listening and paying attention to detail.

What does research say about active learning? ›

Past studies show that students perceive active learning as benefitting their learning (Machemer & Crawford, 2007; Patrick, Howell, & Wischusen, 2016) and increasing their self-efficacy (Stump, Husman, & Corby, 2014).

What is the best way to motivate students? ›

Tips On How To Motivate Your Students
  1. Become a role model for student interest. ...
  2. Get to know your students. ...
  3. Use examples freely. ...
  4. Use a variety of student-active teaching activities. ...
  5. Set realistic performance goals. ...
  6. Place appropriate emphasis on testing and grading. ...
  7. Be free with praise and constructive in criticism.

How do you promote active student participation? ›

3. Create an Atmosphere That Encourages Participation
  1. Be respectful.
  2. Speak loud enough so everyone can hear.
  3. Listen to classmates.
  4. Don't interrupt who is speaking.
  5. Build on your classmate's comments with your comments.
  6. Use participation to not only answer questions but to seek help or ask for clarification.

What are the benefits of active learning for college students? ›

Active learning improves student outcomes

The benefits to using such activities are many, including improved critical thinking skills, increased retention and transfer of new information, increased motivation, improved interpersonal skills, and decreased course failure (Prince, 2004).

How do college students learn best? ›

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with knowledge and concepts that they already know, most effectively in active social classrooms where they negotiate understanding through interaction and varied approaches.

What is a student identity? ›

Student academic identity is defined as the appropriation of academic values and practices within a sense of self, reflecting the willingness and commitment to the practices of the academic community.

What are 5 examples of identity? ›

Key examples of personal identity include your personality, achievements, gender, ethnicity, social status, social class, beliefs, values, and culture.

What are the 8 personal identities? ›

The “Big 8” socially constructed identities are: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality and socioeconomic status.

What are the 4 core identities? ›

What follows are sections that look at lots of elements that combine to form your identity puzzle. We will take an in-depth look at four core elements (significance, purpose, personal characteristics, and values).

How do you develop student identity? ›

Strategies for action:
  1. Build relationships with students based on trust and mutual respect.
  2. Build collaborative relationships with families to support learning, safety, and wellbeing.
  3. Support positive peer relationships.
  4. Model positive and caring teacher-teacher relationships.

What are some examples of social identity in students? ›

Examples of social identity include: race, ethnicity, gender, sex, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age, religion/religious beliefs, national origin, and emotional, developmental disabilities and abilities.

What are 5 characteristics of identity? ›

Elements or characteristics of identity would include race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical attributes, personality, political affiliations, religious beliefs, professional identities, and so on. Consider some of the basics about individual identity.

What are the two main characteristics of identity? ›

Identity has two important features: continuity and contrast. Continuity means that people can count on you to be the same person tomorrow as you are today. Obviously, people change but many important aspects of social identity remain relatively stable such as gender, surname, language and ethnicity.

What are the three core identities? ›

There are three core identities in any difficult conversation: 1. Am I competent?, 2. Am I a good person?, and 3. Am I worthy of love?

How do I describe my identity? ›

Personality traits, abilities, likes and dislikes, your belief system or moral code, and the things that motivate you — these all contribute to self-image or your unique identity as a person. People who can easily describe these aspects of their identity typically have a fairly strong sense of who they are.

What determines your identity? ›

Identity formation and evolution are impacted by a variety of internal and external factors like society, family, loved ones, ethnicity, race, culture, location, opportunities, media, interests, appearance, self-expression and life experiences.

What 6 things make up your identity? ›

Aspects of identity examples include our gender, ethnicity, personality, religion, values, and hobbies. Each aspect helps to make up who we are, and make us unique individuals.


1. Active Learning in Small Groups: Classroom Demonstration (Excerpt)
(Association of College and University Educators)
2. Bringing the lecture to life with student-centered active learning strategies
(UC STEM Faculty Learning Community)
3. Active Learning in Criminal Justice
4. How the Active Learning Solution Works
(Mary Young)
5. Active Learning Techniques in Math
(NSHE Media)
6. Active Learning + Proactive Teaching = Deep and Flexible Student Learning Part 5


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