'Blended' learning refers to the context-appropriate integration of both on-campus and online activities that maximise student learning outcomes.

'Blended' learning does not imply exclusively online content. Nor does the 'blending' of a course necessarily result in a reduction in face-to-face teaching time.

Active versus passive learning

It has long been recognised that simply listening to someone else talk is less effective for learning than doing things yourself, or engaging in activities. 

Active learning refers to a range of teaching approaches that encourage learners to actively engage with course materials, one another, and/or lecturers. It contrasts with passive learning of lecture-based or 'talking head'-style instruction.

Active learning encompasses various educational approaches, including:

  • collaborative learning
  • cooperative learning
  • experiential learning
  • project-based learning
  • problem-based or inquiry-based learning
  • peer-led instruction
  • role-playing and simulation.

When a student is sitting in a passive lecture, their mind is likely to wander. With learning tasks that make few demands (e.g. passive lecture), executive control tends to maximise the occurrence of task-unrelated thought both inside (Rummel & Boywitt, 2014) and outside of the laboratory (Kane et al., 2007).

This 'mind wandering' has been linked to poor outcomes in a wide range of tasks, such as comprehension during reading (Jackson & Balota, 2012) and during lectures (Farley et al., 2013).

In contrast, when students are engaged in time-sensitive, active learning, their mind is less likely to wander. Research shows that when learning makes consistent demands on external attention (e.g. a classroom with active learning, or learning online in small chunks with regular self-assessment under time pressure), students with good executive control are less likely to mind wander (McVay & Kane, 2011).

Benefits of blended learning

Research connecting active learning classrooms with student learning has been documented by Baepler et al. (2016) and shows that students in active learning:

  • outperform their peers in traditional classrooms
  • exceed their own grade expectations as predicted by standardised test scores
  • show significant student learning gains over using a lecture-based approach in the same space.

Active learning approaches are evidenced with 'blended' learning practices that combine in-class activities with the delivery of online resources. It involves integrating and interspersing face-to-face engagement alongside interactive online activities.

A number of systematic analyses and meta-analyses have addressed the effectiveness of blended learning:

  • Paul (2001) concluded that face-to-face with online enhancement was 11% more effective than face-to-face alone (perceptual skills, intellectual skills, motor skills, attitudes). 
  • A 2004 meta-study by Prince found strong support for active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning.
  • Across 52 studies, Zhao et al. (2005) found a 0.49 effect size for online learning mixed with face-to-face instruction (i.e. greater achievement gain for BL).
  • Bernard et al. (2014) found that, across 96 studies, blended learning conditions exceeded face-to-face conditions on any measure of academic performance (effect size 0.33). 
  • A well cited 2014 meta-study by Freeman et al. analysed 225 previous studies of teaching in science, engineering and mathematics. The results showed that, when active learning was employed, average examination scores improved by approximately 6%. Further, students taught by traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students taught through active learning. In light of these results, the authors recommended "abandoning traditional lecturing in favour of active learning".

Further reading

Baepler, P., et al. (2016). A Guide to Teaching in the Active Learning Classroom: History, Research, and Practice. Stylus Publishing.

Bernard, R.M., et al. (2014). A meta-analysis of blended learning and technology use in higher education: From the general to the applied. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 26(1), 87–122. doi:10.1007/s12528-013-9077-3.

Farley, J., et al. (2013). Everyday attention and lecture retention: the effects of time, fidgeting, and mind wandering. Frontiers in Psychology, 4:619.

Freeman, S., et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Comment) vol. 111 no. 23.

Graham, C., et al. (2013). Developing models and theory for blended learning research. In Blended Learning: Research Perspectives (Vol.2). Routledge.

Jackson, J.D., & Balota, D.A. (2012). Mind-wandering in younger and older adults: converging evidence from the sustained attention to response task and reading for comprehension. Psychology and Aging, 27, 106–119.

Kane, M.J., et al. (2007). For whom the mind wanders, and when: an experience-sampling study of working memory and executive control in daily life. Psychological Science, 18, 614–621.

McVay, J.C., & Kane, M.J. (2011). Why does working memory capacity predict variation in reading comprehension? On the influence of mind wandering and executive attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 302–320.

Paul, D.S. (2001). A meta-analytic review of factors that influence the effectiveness of Web-based training within the context of distance learning. Texas A&M University.

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education 93(3), 223–231.

Rummel, J., & Boywitt, C.D. (2014). Controlling the stream of thought: Working memory capacity predicts adjustment of mind-wandering to situational demands. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 21, 1309–1315.

Zhao, Y., et al. (2005). What makes the difference? A practical analysis of research on the effectiveness of distance education. Teacher’s College Record, 107, 1836–1884.