In fact learning.futures is simply a collection of evidence-based best practices in learning and teaching to support high quality learning outcomes. In this series of blog posts, I will discuss the evidence on which the strategy is based.

Probably THE most important aspect of the learning.futures strategy is that students should be engaged in active learning and I will focus on this aspect in this first post. There are many definitions of active learning including “a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content.1

One of the three aspects of the UTS Model is “an integrated exposure to professional practice through dynamic and multifaceted modes of practice-oriented education” so it is helpful to link active learning to the activities a professional might engage in. Thus at UTS we might think of active learning as “students engaging in a range of learning activities that promote authentic professional practices.”


So what is the evidence that active learning improves learning outcomes? There are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles on this topic, so it is best to draw upon the results of a meta-analysis.

Freeman et. al (2014)2 analysed 225 studies measuring examination results and failure rates using a control and treatment group design3They found an increase in exam performance for those using active learning of .47 standard deviations and that students in the control group who sat in traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail. Given the significance of these findings the authors question the ethics of continuing to use traditional lecturing as a control group strategy in future studies.

One of the key proponents of the benefits of active learning in science, engineering and mathematics is Professor Carl Weiman, winner of the Nobel prize for Physics, from Stanford University. In this YouTube video he puts forward a compelling, evidence-based argument for teaching STEM using active learning.

What I particulary like about his approach is his underlying theory in designing the active learning experience – that it is about helping students develop expertise needed for expert performance (thus linking to the UTS Model aspect promoting authentic professional practices).

Professor Weiman maintains a website of excellent resources on this topic including:

The evidence base in this post has been related to STEM. In the next post, I will review the evidence from non-STEM discipline areas.



2 Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP. (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA;111:8410-8415.

3 Note – I am generally not in favour of such experimental designs where human beings are involved since it so difficult to hold everything constant and vary just one aspect

  • I find it interesting (but understandable) that staff want to know the research basis for Learning.Futures. But I wonder if they’re able to identify how they’ve learnt themselves? That is certainly a powerful and personal argument. Over the years, as I’ve recruited 500+ U:PASS leaders, one of my fundamental questions to them, when I’m trying to persuade them of the need for active learning in their classroom is: how did you learn it? How did you succeed at this subject? With only 2 days of training, I need them to really believe in the approach of getting the students to do the work, rather than them tell or explain it the students. So it’s really important that they can articulate the merits of this approach in recruitment and then to their own students.

    Inevitably, they will conclude that they learnt it by actively wrestling with it, and engaging with it, and not by simply listening to someone talk about it. An often quoted article that I’ve used in various contexts is the meta-review study of the best ways to learn: “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology” by Dunlovsky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan and Willingham (2013) (here: which concludes that the best strategies are the ones which require time and effort– distributed practice and practice testing. I used this article in an HSC students equity U@UTS workshop in 2015. It was really fun to work with the students and help them actively learn that highlighting is a limited and ineffective strategy! They were quite disconcerted, it has to be said. I think the earlier we can help people understand the best ways to learn, the more chance we have that they will embrace active learning strategies at university. Of course, one of the downsides of active learning is it requires more cognitive resources. It’s simply harder. Whereas something like highlighting feels like work, but yet is relatively mindless.

  • Dr. Darrall G Thompson, (PhD Education M.Design) commented

    Hi Shirley,
    Thank you for your clear rationale and references. The fact that you have been asked about this underlines the issue that some university teaching has not caught up with current high school and primary education. This may be due to the fact that whilst public school teachers usually have a BA in Education there is no pre-requisite for university teachers to have substantial teaching and learning qualifications.
    There needs to perhaps be recognition that most academics are now required to have three distinct areas of expertise – expertise in teaching theory and practice, expertise in the theory and practice of their discipline and expertise in academic research.
    I would suggest that these three are rarely equally embodied in each of us! Q: Do you think this is an argument for a more formal targeted approach to recruitment and staff workload definition ?
    Whilst your explanation of Learning Futures is clear I have not heard a similar clarity with regard to the rationale behind the ‘balanced semesters’. Q: Would you also be able to blog about this aspect of the current changes ?
    warm regards,

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