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The Perils of Interactive Learning

Updated: May 17, 2023

Baylor University

I began a recent class on the history of Christianity with a brief writing exercise meant to help students retrieve basic information. I asked them to name and provide key details about information presented in online videos assigned as pre-class preparation. As I set the timer on my iPhone for two minutes and walked the room, I saw a few students feverishly and confidently write multiple words and phrases. More students wrote one or two words. Many students wrote nothing, attempting their best impression of a student-in-thought as I walked by. Of course, I was disappointed.

The activity was a simple, straightforward exercise. It was, in the language of Bloom’s taxonomy, remembering, which is a lower-order cognitive task. But as disappointed as I was, I was not surprised, as research shows that most students don’t complete preparation assignments simply because they are assigned (Burchfield & Sappington, 2000). I also knew from looking at the data on our learning management system just before class that less than one-third of the students had watched the videos. I supposed not watching the videos was understandable, as it was only the second day of class, and I had not belabored my expectations on day one. Although I stuck with the writing exercise through the course to reinforce the need to come to class prepared, students did not benefit from it nearly as much as they would have had they watched the videos. What I had stumbled into is but one example of the possible perils of interactive learning.

There are many good reasons to use interactive methods (which comes in many forms: discussion, problem-solving, writing exercises, debate, re-presentation of material in a new form, gaming, etc.).

Through the last three decades of education research, a consensus has emerged that including interactive learning with lecturing results in more positive outcomes of helping students understand the material and a range of critical thinking skills than lectures alone.

Classes with interactive learning are also as effective in helping students remember basic information as lectures alone (Freeman et al., 2014). Relatedly, including interactive learning is also positively related to students’ attitudes and motivation to learn.

And yet, as my recent experience showed, interactive learning comes with certain potential perils that instructors must keep in mind. First, interactive learning does not work automatically. Student retention and comprehension of information will likely not improve simply by incorporating interactive learning techniques. To capitalize on the potentials of interactive learning, instructors should understand some of its theoretical groundings. Because interactive learning methods rely on prior knowledge, such tactics could waste time if students do not come to class prepared. Because correcting misconceptions and connecting new information to prior knowledge are vital to understanding, publicly polling students will not improve learning if they don’t discuss their reasoning before seeing the correct answer. Likewise, think-pair-share will be ineffective if instructors do not allow students enough time to think about a question (Andrews et al., 2011).

Second, many students may resist interactive learning due to unfamiliarity with the methods, the greater effort expected of students, and the impression that peer interaction results in “the blind leading the blind.” Some research suggests that, in general, males, less experienced students, and more experienced students in larger classes prefer lecture to interactive learning (Owens et al., 2017; Messineo et al., 2007). In addition, many students feel they learn more through lectures, even when experimental conditions show that these students have learned more with interactive methods (Deslauriers et al., 2019). This deceptive “cognitive fluency” effect is especially pronounced when instructors deliver particularly smooth lectures, essentially deluding students into thinking they know something well merely because it sounds so clear and easy to understand when it is presented. These effects are compounded by the facts that novice learners are poor judges of their learning and that learners generally feel they learn less when learning is difficult (primarily because the feeling of mastery eludes them), when—within reason—the opposite is the case (Brown et al., 2014). Negative attitudes toward interactive learning may affect students’ attitudes, participation, evaluation of the course, and grades and learning.

Finally, a focus on interactive learning may lead to neglect of lectures. In the rush of excitement to integrate evidence-based interactive learning, some instructors have stopped lecturing altogether. But this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The lecture should not be pitted against interactive learning; instructors should appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each. Although lecturing tends to be less effective for higher-order thinking, lectures can be effective for learning objectives related to memorizing terms, definitions, and concepts—particularly for novice learners (Bligh, 2000; Harrington & Zakrajsek, 2017). In some cases, lectures are the best way to provide necessary organization for material or display how an expert in the discipline solves problems. Through storytelling, drama, and relatable anecdotes, good lecturers also tap into the emotional dimensions of learning that interactive methods may miss (Cavanagh, 2015).

These perils are not reasons to forgo interactive methods; the potential benefits for student learning are too great. To increase student preparation, create additional motivations for students—reading quizzes at the beginning of class, reflections turned in as they walk into class, participation points (it’s best to make these things low-stakes). To mitigate student resistance to interactive learning, instructors should be transparent with students, explaining that pedagogical decisions are based on helping students learn (Felder, 2001). Caution students that “feelings of learning” and learning are not the same and that some difficulties are desirable in the learning process. To avoid losing the benefits of lecture in a rush to explore interactive pedagogies, plan brief lectures that thoughtfully incorporate interactive elements, providing foundational knowledge that piques students’ interest.

Finally, instructors should give themselves time to become adept at interactive methods and seek advice from (or observe the teaching of) instructors who use these methods effectively. Often, it takes a semester or two to become comfortable with a new teaching technique. Don’t be too quick to discard a teaching method just because it failed once or doesn’t feel natural.

Discussion Questions:

1. What interactive learning methods have you used that did not go well? What do you think impeded success?

2. How might you be able to intersperse your lectures with brief interactive learning?

3. In what ways might you be contributing to student’s misleading “feelings of learning”?


Andrews, T., Leonard, M., Colgrove, C., Kalinowski, S. (2011). Active learning not associated with student learning in a random sample of college biology courses. CBE Life Sciences Education, 10(4), 394–405.

Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Burchfield, C., & Sappington, J. (2000). Compliance with Required Reading Assignments. Teaching of Psychology, 27(1), 58–60.

Cavanagh, S. (2016). The spark of learning: energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press.

Deslauriers, L., Mccarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(39), 19251–19257.

Felder, R. (2001). Hang in there: Dealing with student resistance to learner-centered teaching. Chemical Engineering Education, 43(2), 131-132.

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 of the United States of America 111(23), 8410-8415.

Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Messineo, M., Gaither, G., Bott, J., & Ritchey, K. (2007). Inexperienced versus experienced students’ expectations for active learning in large classes. College Teaching, 55(3), 125-133.

Owens, D.C., Sadler, T.D., Barlow, A.T. et al. (2017). Student Motivation from and Resistance to Active Learning Rooted in Essential Science Practices. Research in Science Education, 50, 253-277.

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