Can Students Misjudge Their Own Learning?


Imagine this scenario: students taking physics—one group with a faculty member who lectured effectively, the other with one who used active learning extensively. In both cases what students learned was tested after the class session; students also reported how much they thought they learned. As previous research predicted, the students in the active learning session learned more, having scored better on the after-class test. But did they know they learned more in the active learning session than in the lecture?

Teaching Professor Blog

If you said no, you’re correct. According to survey data collected in this recent study, students thought they learned more from lecture. The study is noteworthy on an important front. In many studies active learning and lecture are somewhat mingled. There may still be some active engagement in the lecture and some lecture in the active learning session. In this study, the teachers who lectured used slides, gave explanations and demonstrations, and solved example problems. In the active learning session, by contrast, students worked in groups to solve problems (the same ones used in the lecture session) while the teachers walked around the room asking questions and offering assistance. After the students worked on the problems, the teachers provided a full solution (the same one used in the lecture session). The content and supplementary materials were identical in the lecture and active learning sessions.

The research team offers this summation: “We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less.” What’s causing students to think they learn more when they listen to a lecture? The researchers consider three possibilities. First, other studies have shown that cognitive fluency, as in well-delivered lectures, can cause students to think they are learning more. In follow-up interviews, most of the physics students involved described what happened in the active learning classroom as “disjointed,” “lacking in flow when compared with the more fluent passive lecture,” and characterized by “frequent interruptions.” Second, other research documents that novices with little knowledge of a subject area do not typically make accurate judgments about how much they’ve learned. In this study a follow-up analysis showed “that students with more prior expertise had a stronger (more positive) correlation between FOL [their feelings of learning] and actual performance on the test.” And finally, the researchers propose that “when students experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort to signify poorer learning.” In those follow-up interviews students talked about their feelings of frustration and confusion as well as their fears that errors wouldn’t get corrected in the active learning environment. All but one of the 17 students interviewed found the lecture more “enjoyable” and “easier to follow.”

“It is of paramount importance that students appreciate, early in the semester, the benefits of struggling with the material during active learning,” write the authors. Too many students still believe that learning should be easy, and unfortunately a good lecture makes it feel that way. In this case problems were solved in lecture by someone who had solved all sorts of physics problems and could move through the steps easily, arriving, seemingly without effort, at the solution. Students dutifully copy it all down with what they think is understanding.

This research underscores the need for better understanding of learning processes. Teachers can offer explanation. Perhaps more potent are questions teachers need to raise with students about how they study and learn. When the students interviewed in this study were shown the findings and then asked whether seeing the results would shape the way they studied, 14 of the 17 said yes.

It should be noted that the 149 undergraduate students in this study were science majors at Harvard. The researchers note that their recommendations should apply to other student populations “as the cognitive principles underlying these effects are not specific to physics or to the well-prepared students in this course.” Most of us don’t teach students like those enrolled at Harvard, but chances are that lots of other students would just as soon have the teacher solve the problems and answer the questions, even though it’s hard for anyone to learn content without getting their hands dirty.


Deslauriers, D., McCarty, L. S., 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. Advance online publication. [open access]