Study on the Effectiveness of Active Learning


This study examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning. It defines the common forms of active learning most relevant for engineering/architecture faculty and critically examines the core element of each method. It is found that there is broad but uneven support for the core elements of Active, Collaborative, Cooperative and Problem-Based Learning. Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process.


Collaborative learning vs Cooperative Learning vs PBL

“Collaborative learning” can refer to any instructional method in which students work together in small groups towards a common goal. In either interpretation, the core element of collaborative learning is the emphasis on student interactions rather than on learning as a solitary activity.

“Cooperative learning” can be defined as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually.

“Problem-based learning (PBL)” is an instructional method where relevant problems are introduced at the beginning of the instruction cycle and used to provide the context and motivation for the learning that follows

Problems Interpreting the Literature of Active Learning

1. Problems defining what is being studied

Confusion can result from reading the literature on the effectiveness of any instructional method unless the reader and author take care to specify precisely what is being examined.

2. Problems measuring “what works”

Just as every instructional method consists of more than one element, it also affects more than one learning outcome. When asking whether active learning “works,” the broad range of outcomes should be considered such as measures of factual knowledge, relevant skills and student attitudes, and pragmatic items as student retention in academic programs.

Evidence of Active Learning

On the simplest level, active learning is introducing student activity into the traditional lecture. In a study involving 72 students over two courses in each of two semesters, the researchers examined the effect of interrupting a 45-minute lecture three times with two-minute breaks during which students worked in pairs to clarify their notes. In parallel with this approach, they taught a separate group using a straight lecture and then tested short and long-term retention of lecture material. Many proponents of active learning suggest that the effectiveness of this approach has to do with student attention span during lecture.

Active learning

Introducing Student Activity in a traditional lecture

Simply introducing activity into the classroom fails to capture an important component of active learning. The type of activity, for example, influences how much classroom material is retained.

Results supporting the effectiveness of active-engagement methods are reported that show that the improved learning gains are due to the nature of active engagement and not to extra time spent on a given topic. Active engagement methods surpass traditional instruction for improving conceptual understanding of basic physics concepts. The differences are quite significant. Taken together, the studies of Hake et al., Redish et al. and Laws et al. provide considerable support for active engagement methods, particularly for addressing students’ fundamental misconceptions.

The importance of addressing student misconceptions has recently been recognized as an essential element of effective teaching. In summary, considerable support exists for the core elements of active learning. Introducing activity into lectures can significantly improve recall of information while extensive evidence supports the benefits of student engagement.

Collaborative Learning  

The central element of collaborative learning is collaborative vs. individual work and the analysis therefore focuses on how collaboration influences learning outcomes. The results of existing meta-studies on this question are consistent. In a review of 90 years of research, Johnson, Johnson and Smith found that cooperation improved learning outcomes relative to individual work across the board. Similar results were found in an updated study by the same authors that looked at 168 studies between 1924 and 1997. Springer et al. found similar results looking at 37 studies of students in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. Reported results for each of these studies are shown in Table 1, using effect sizes to show the impact of collaboration on a range of learning outcomes.

With respect to retention, the results suggest that collaboration reduces attrition in technical programs by 22 percent, a significant finding when technical programs are struggling to attract and retain students. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that collaboration is particularly effective for improving retention of traditionally underrepresented groups

Cooperative Learning

At its core, cooperative learning is based on the premise that cooperation is more effective than competition among students for producing positive learning outcomes. Another issue of interest to engineering faculty is that cooperative learning provides a natural environment in which to promote effective teamwork and interpersonal skills. For engineering faculty, the need to develop these skills in their students is reflected by the ABET engineering criteria. Employers frequently identify team skills as a critical gap in the preparation of engineering students. Since practice is a precondition of learning any skill, it is difficult to argue that individual work in traditional classes does anything to develop team skills.

In summary, there is broad empirical support for the central premise of cooperative learning, that cooperation is more effective than the competition for promoting a range of positive learning outcome

Problem-based Learning

Once a problem has been posed, different instructional methods may be used to facilitate the subsequent learning process: lecturing, instructor-facilitated discussion, guided decision making, or cooperative learning. As part of the problem-solving process, student groups can be assigned to complete any of the learning tasks listed above, either in or out of class. In the latter case, three approaches may be adopted to help the groups stay on track and to monitor their progress. The large variation in PBL practices makes the analysis of its effectiveness more complex. Many studies comparing PBL to traditional programs are simply not talking about the same thing. Beyond producing positive student attitudes, the effects of PBL are less generally accepted, though other supporting data do exist.

Vernon and Blake , for example, present evidence that there is a statistically significant improvement of PBL on students’ clinical performance with an effect size of 0.28. However, Colliver points out that this is influenced strongly by one outlying study with a positive effect size of 2.11, which skews the data.

There is also evidence that PBL improves the long-term retention of knowledge compared to traditional instruction. Evidence also suggests that PBL promotes better study habits among students. As one might expect from an approach that requires more indep

endence from students, PBL has frequently been shown to increase library use, textbook reading, class attendance and studying for meaning rather than simple recall.

Looking at what seems to work, there are significant positive effect sizes associated with placing students in small groups and using cooperative learning structures. This is consistent with much of the literature cited previously in support of cooperative learning. While PBL and cooperative learning are distinct approaches, there is a natural synergy that instructors should consider exploiting. That is, real problems of the sort used in PBL require teams to solve effectively.

At the same time, the challenge provided by realistic problems can provide some of the mutual interdependence that is one of the five tenets of cooperative learning. Table 3 also shows that positive results come from instruction in problem solving. This is consistent with much of the advice given by proponents of problem-based learning.

In conclusion, PBL is difficult to analyze because there are not one or two core elements that can be clearly identified with student learning outcomes. Perhaps the closest candidates for core elements would be inductive or discovery learning.

However, while no evidence proves that PBL enhances academic achievement as measured by exams, there is evidence to suggest that PBL “works” for achieving other important learning outcomes. Studies suggest that PBL develops more positive student attitudes, fosters a deeper approach to learning and helps students retain knowledge longer than traditional instruction


Although the results vary in strength, this study has found support for all forms of active learning examined. Some of the findings, such as the benefits of student engagement, are unlikely to be controversial although the magnitude of improvements resulting from active-engagement methods may come as a surprise.

For example, students will remember more content if brief activities are introduced to the lecture. Contrast this to the prevalent content tyranny that encourages faculty to push through as much material as possible in a given session. Similarly, the support for collaborative and cooperative learning calls into question the traditional assumptions that individual work and competition best promote achievement.

The best available evidence suggests that faculty should structure their courses to promote collaborative and cooperative environments. The entire course need not be team-based, as seen by the evidence in Springer et al., nor must individual responsibility be absent, as seen by the emphasis on individual accountability in cooperative learning.

Problem-based learning presents the most difficult method to analyze because it includes a variety of practices and lacks a dominant core element to facilitate analysis. Rather, different implementations of PBL emphasize different elements, some more effective for promoting academic achievement than others. Based on the literature, faculty adopting PBL are unlikely to see improvements in student test scores, but are likely to positively influence student attitudes and study habits.


Active learning – Gamified learning

Gamification is considered active learning. The gamification of learning is an educational approach to motivate students to learn by using video game design and game elements in learning environments. The goal is to maximize enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning.

Gamified learning characteristics:

  • Progress mechanics (points/badges/leaderboards, or PBL’s)
  • Narrative and characters
  • Player control
  • Immediate feedback
  • Opportunities for collaborative problem solving
  • Scaffold learning with increasing challenges
  • Opportunities for mastery, and leveling up
  • Social connection

In the paper An Assessment of the Effectiveness of an in-Class Game on Marketing Students’ Perceptions and Learning Outcomes by John T. Drea,Carolyn Tripp &Kathleen Stuenkel were given examples of gamified learning experiences. In one particular comparison between gamified and non-gamified learning were given positive results in favour of the gamified learning.

“The eighty-nine participating subjects reported an average of 67.8% correct on the quiz following their participation in the control group, compared to a score of 76.1% correct by students who participated in the experimental (game) group. Since all participants were both in one experimental group and in one control group, the difference in score cannot be attributed to differences between the groups in terms of ability levels. Also, since both groups spent the same amount of time on task, differences in scores for the two groups cannot be attributed to the amount of quiz preparation.The present data suggest that the in-class game studied has a positive impact on student learning in at least two separate ways. Specifically, the results indicate that students positively perceive the in-class game. The results also indicate that the in-class game is associated with an increase in measurable student outcomes.”

Some of the obvious benefits of gamified learning are:

  • giving students ownership of their learning
  • opportunities for identity work through taking on alternate selves
  • freedom to fail and try again without negative repercussions
  • chances to increase fun and joy in the classroom
  • opportunities for differentiated instruction
  • making learning visible
  • providing a manageable set of subtasks and tasks
  • inspiring students to discover intrinsic motivators for learning
  • motivating students with dyslexia with low levels of motivation

If we try to look for criticism of gamification in the learning process, there is not much. But one of the major points that has been raised is that- it is an extrinsic motivator, which some teachers believe must be avoided since it has the potential to decrease intrinsic motivation for learning. This idea is based on research in the early 1970s and has been recently made popular by Daniel Pink. Teachers may not acknowledge that extrinsic motivators are already at work in a typical classroom, or they may wish to minimize extrinsic motivation.

Gamification has a positive effect in engineering education by making difficult subjects more manageable, increasing intrinsic motivation, scientific knowledge, collaboration, interest and reducing or better managing workload. However, there are also critical comments based on the lack of Markopoulos of many empirical surveys. The studies that have been published so far are mainly theoretical and more experimental works, exploring the experience of the participants, need to be reported in the future. Although gamification is still in its first steps, it has grown a momentum that will yield many research results in the near future, especially in the field of engineering education at all levels.

If we look back at the history of the commercial games/ toys – some of the first commercial toys were construction toys such as Lego and their ancestors. Nowadays, Unity and Unreal – some of the most popular gaming engines get used more and more in architecture, design, engineering and construction, we can only expect further use of gamification in the AEC industry. From VR headsets to animations using gaming engines and software user-interface reminding popular computer games, the gaming industry is clearly paving the path for a lot of the advancements in the AEC field.


What is Haptics?

As human beings, we can interact with our environment through the sense of touch, which helps us to build an understanding of objects and events. The implications of touch for cognition are recognized by many educators who advocate the use of “hands-on” instruction. The origins of the word can be traced back to the Greek words Haptikos, meaning “able to touch,” and Haptesthai, meaning “able to lay hold of”.

The study was focused on research articles from the field of psychology that systematically investigated and described the development of haptics and its role in cognition.


As human beings, we can interact with our environment through the sense of touch, which helps us to build an understanding of objects and events.

The implications of touch for cognition are recognized by many educators who advocate the use of “hands-on” instruction. Touch has been described as an active discovery sense that something touched is more real than something seen.

The human sense of touch is an active, informative, and useful perceptual system. From our earliest days, we use touch to discover the world around us. Information gained through touch lays the foundation for the development of a wide range of concepts.

Haptics in Education

Elementary school teachers have long been interested in the use of manipulative in their lessons. The manipulative are designed to be touched and handled by students, helping them develop their muscular, perceptual, and Psychomotor skills and providing concrete experiences with intangible concepts and Ideas

In a review of studies on infant haptic abilities, Bushnell and Boudreau (1993) noted that infants touched the textured surface of an object longer than its plain surface, suggesting that they discriminated between the two.

Finding suggests that 7-month-olds are able to use manual contact as a means of acquiring haptic information. Moreover, the group difference may be an indication of these infants’ ability to recognize a familiar texture through a representation of the original texture formed and retained in memory. The results of this analysis also showed that both experimental and control infants displayed high and sustained levels of manual contact during the novelty phase.

Study of Haptics on Adults

It is believed, however, that with an increase in age and presumably an increase in knowledge comes more systematic and purposeful haptic Processing.

The term exploratory procedures to describe stereotypical and formulaic hand movements that adult individuals performing haptic explorations instinctively employ to extract information regarding an object’s properties


How Might Haptics Affect Learning?

  1. The studies discussed thus far suggest that touch, although not fully understood from an information-processing standpoint, is a fully functional cognitive system.
  2. However, to date, very little empirical research has systematically investigated the value of adding haptic feedback to the complex process of teaching and learning.
  3. The use of multiple senses in learning is thought to be involved in the development of more generalized cognitive processes, that is, in moving from concrete to abstract thinking.
  4. The haptic experience goes beyond passive touch, such as the experience of an object being pressed against the skin.
  5. Haptics involves active touch: The individual deliberately chooses his or her actions in the exploration and manipulation of an object.
  6. Early on, Fitts and Posner (1967) defined three phases of learning: cognitive, associative, and autonomous
  7. In this initial stage of learning, especially with a complicated motor task, haptics may significantly improve learning by allowing the participant to more easily make a connection between the instructions and the motor requirements.

Kinesthetic Knowledge

Some indirect evidence of how haptics may improve learning can bee seen in the technology’s increasing use in flight and medical training. Many military and commercial pilots now are trained in flight simulators, which require the application of force or pressure on the controls corresponding to that occurring during actual flight. In a review of the research on Kinesthetic memory, Clark and Horch (1986) suggest that human beings have a remarkable ability to remember the positions of their limbs quite accurately and for long periods.

Embodied Knowledge

Embodied knowledge is a way to explain the positive educational impact of haptics. That is to say, this learning environment stirs up tacit embodied knowledge, previously unexploited non propositional knowledge.

Tactile Knowledge

Additional insight into the potential value of haptic stimulation in learning is provided by a study that examined the effects of incorporating actual (non virtual) haptic exploration of letters into a training program designed to develop understandings of the alphabetic principle among pre-reading kindergarten children

Sixty monolingual French children (25 girls and 35 boys) with a mean age of 5 years and 7 months took part in this study; all were pre-readers and had no prior training with phonological tasks.

The results of this study showed that incorporating the haptic exploration increased the positive effects of the training on the understanding and use of the alphabetic principle in young children and on their decoding skills. Perhaps more important, the haptic exploration appeared to help students establish the link between the orthographic representations of the letters and the phonological representation of the corresponding sounds. It was suggested that the beneficial effect of incorporating the haptic modality could be due to various functional specificities of the sensory modalities.

When haptics in Education and Gamification meet

In the paper Haptics in Education: Exploring an Untapped Sensory Modality by James Minogue and M. Gail Jones, we can read the following:

The haptic experience goes beyond passive touch, such as the experience of an object being pressed against the skin. In such a case, the observer does not necessarily move, and information is imposed upon the skin. In contrast, haptics involves active touch: The individual deliberately chooses his or her actions in the exploration and manipulation of an object. In turn, those actions provide information about the properties of when haptics is examined in an educational setting the object. The distinction between active and passive touch becomes important.

It is also suggested that people have different kinds of memory and the haptic memory should not be underestimated. An example is given of how kids that learn to read, might benefit from the physical touch of letter blocks while reading and saying the letters.

Common scenarios in which we see haptics and gamification overlap are:

  • Early childhood education
  • Medicine
  • Biology
  • Aviation

A great example of haptics in education and gamification is the augmented reality sandbox.



Can we use more haptic learning in the AEC field?

Architects do not make buildings anymore, we make drawings of buildings. Sometimes similar is the case with engineering. Engineers do not make the building structure, they make drawings of a structure. And historically this hasn’t always been the case. Initially, when the architectural profession formed as such – the architect was the person who was also in charge of the construction. On small scale experimental projects, we can still see that, we do from A-Z, we do the design, detailing, and even installation, but for commercial architecture, this is hardly the case. What this eventually leads to is that we as architects don`t get the final touch, we are only in charge of the drawings that get interpreted by other stakeholders. Often we experience issues in the built environment due to this design approach, which is purely visual. This issue is explicitly pointed out in HAPTIC ARCHITECTURE BECOMES ARCHITECTURAL HAP by Herssens J., Heylighen A.:

Architects—and designers in general—are used to create, design, dream and think in a visual manner (Cross 1982). They draw on a paper napkin, sketchbook, laptop or drawing board their mental image of a future physical environment. The language spoken during the design process is visual in the first place. As the architect and theorist Bernard Tschumi (1975) noticed before: there is a gap between the mental world in which architects design and the physical world in which they build. Our cultural history has increased this gap and has contributed to this emphasis on visualization: on the one hand because an architect was believed to be a master builder; on the other hand because Western Society is visually marked (Classen 1998). In short, this visual predilection is inherent to our human brain and nourished by our Western cultural framework. As a result, we will point out further on, we are in fact ‘architecturally disabled’ (Goldsmith 1997).

The lack of attention for multi-sensoriality in most of the present design processes, could be solved by adopting a human centered design process. According to Zeisel (2001), blind people are experts in screening multi-sensorial qualities: “Who can better clarify for us what the non-visual perceptible multi-sensory qualities and shortcomings of a city space or of a building are than a blind person?” Thus, if we intend to make architecture more multi-sensorial, we can learn from the behaviours and experiences of blind people on environmental perception. To Morton Heller (2000), the idea that perception in the total absence of sight can afford important insights into the relation between the sense modalities and cognition, goes back at least to the famous letter by Molyneux to John Locke. In this letter Molyneux asks Locke if it could be possible for a man, born blind but having regained vision later, to recognize by sight alone the shapes that he had previously known only through touch.

During the interviews respondents refer to the ability of ‘facial vision’ (Hollins 1989), a talent to feel space with the help of the displacement of air or sound waves. The latter we call ‘echolocation’.

Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects, by actively creating sounds: for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot, snapping their fingers, or making clicking noises with their mouths.

In Geoff Manaugh’s article – Rousseau and Echolocation, the author makes observations on the echolocation terminology in the book of Rousseau Emile:

Ekirch goes on to say, however, that “a number of ingenious techniques” were developed in a pre-electrified world for finding one’s way through darkness (even across natural landscapes by night). These techniques were “no doubt passed from one generation to another,” he adds, implying that there might yet be assembled a catalog of vernacular techniques for navigating darkness. It would be a fascinating thing to read.

Some of these techniques, beyond Rousseau and his clapping hands, were material; they included small signs and markers such as “a handmade notch in the wood railing leading to the second floor,” allowing you to calculate how many steps lay ahead, as well as backing all furniture up against the walls at night to open clear paths of movement through the household.

Entire, community-wide children’s games were also devised so that everyone growing up in a village could become intimately familiar with the local landscape.

    Games like “Round and Round the Village,” popular in much of England, familiarized children at an early age to their physical surroundings, as did fishing, collecting herbs, and running errands. Schooled by adults in night’s perils, children learned to negotiate the landscapes “as a rabbit knows his burrow”—careful after dark to skirt ponds, wells, and other hazardous terrain. In towns and cities, shop signs, doorways, and back alleys afforded fixed landmarks for neighborhood youths.

Incredibly, Ekirch points out, “Only during the winter, in the event of a heavy snowfall, could surroundings lose their familiarity, despite the advantage to travels of a lighter, more visible landscape.” The mnemonic presence of well-known community landmarks has been replaced by what mammoth calls a “whitesward.”

But this idea, so incredibly basic, that children’s games could actually function as pedagogic tools—immersive geographic lessons—so that kids might learn how to prepare for the coming night, is an amazing one, and I have to wonder what games today might serve a similar function.

We have certainly lost to some degree the attention to materiality and the effect on the other senses except the visual with the modern design process.

As Juhani Pallasmaa suggests most architects are making the same oversight. In his book, The Eyes of the Skin, Pallasmaa assails the hegemony that visual aesthetics hold over the profession. The hegemonic eye, he claims, suppresses all other senses. Pallasmaa writes, “Instead of an existentially grounded plastic and spatial experience, architecture has adopted the psychological strategy of advertising and instant persuasion; buildings have turned into image products detached from existential depth and sincerity.” Perhaps Pallasmaa is right, and architects are designing buildings to look good, but not feel good. Can technology be the answer?

Gamification and haptics are already making breakthroughs in learning in many fields and are likely to influence the AEC industry even more in the future. Some examples where we can see this influence are – 4D sequencing, VR and AR simulations for design purposes, etc. By looking at the advancements of haptics technology, we can already intuitively imagine what the future holds for architecture.

Haptics technology

Haptic technology, also known as kinaesthetic communication or 3D touch, refers to any technology that can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user. These technologies can be used to create virtual objects in a computer simulation, to control virtual objects, and to enhance remote control of machines and devices (telerobotic). Haptic devices may incorporate tactile sensors that measure forces exerted by the user on the interface. Simple haptic devices are common in the form of game controllers, joysticks, and steering wheels.

Haptic technology facilitates investigation of how the human sense of touch works by allowing the creation of controlled haptic virtual objects. Most researchers distinguish three sensory systems related to sense of touch in humans: cutaneous, kinaesthetic and haptic. All perceptions mediated by cutaneous and kinaesthetic sensibility are referred to as tactual perception.



Leap motion control

The Leap Motion Controller is an optical hand tracking module that captures the movements of your hands with unparalleled accuracy. We can very easily link leap motion control to Grasshopper and perhaps this is the way we will be able to design in the future and bring back that lost sense of touch with the final design-built product in the modern design process.



Tactile Telerobots

Tactile Telerobot is the world’s first haptic robotic system that transmits realistic touch feedback to an operator located anywhere in the world. For the first time, users can use their hands naturally to control robotic equipment and feel what robots feel as they manipulate objects.

Beyond the current state of the art, human-inspired principles and current research in Robotics provide valuable insights for the advancement of future general-purpose sensorimotor systems for robots. Novel platforms based on anthropomorphic mechanics of the artificial hand are now available, which might be suitable to handle more open-ended tasks in the future, in that they mimic the potentialities of the human hand which is the result of thousands of years of human evolution. Robots may use prior experience to learn about new objects they have not encountered.

Perhaps this is the future of the construction field – operators located at the office using haptics devices to build on-site buildings. Imagine a scenario where you are using a tactile telerobot constructing something in Australia from the London office.





Ultra-haptics’ technology enables users to receive haptic feedback without the need for wearable or handheld devices. Their patented technology uses ultrasound to project sensations through the air and directly onto the user’s hands.

Let’s think for a second what AR simulation with ultra-haptics would look like? We would be able to visually/ digitally experience a building design, but we would also be able to simulate the textures and real touch of the materials. And it’s interesting how with the advancement of technology, the architectural profession has lost a bit of touch, but as the technology advances, even more, it will bring us back to the roots of the profession when the architect was designing for all senses and going well above and beyond the drawing process.



Forces of Knowledge is a presentation of IAAC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia developed at Master in Advanced Computation for Architecture & Design in 2020/21 by Polina Hadjimitova and Sachin Dabas                                                                                                            

Lead faculty: Jane Burry 

Guest faculty: Gregory Quinn