Hands-on learning: 5 research-proven benefits

Every school year has its challenges, but keeping students engaged is always one of the biggest. You know that when students are interested in the content, they are more invested and reach higher achievement levels. But what’s the secret to engagement?  

According to a growing body of research, taking a hands-on learning approach may be the key. This approach not only boosts student engagement, but it can also help raise test scores and retention rates as well.  

Keep reading to discover what the research says and use it to support a hands-on approach in your classroom.  

1. Hands-on learning stimulates different parts of the brain  

Your biggest goal in the classroom is to get students thinking and activating the neurons in their brains. It seems hands-on learning does just that.  

Researchers at the University of Chicago set out to study the effects of hands-on learning on brain activity. In their study, half the participants learned about a physics concept through observation and the other half learned about it through a hands-on approach. The results? Not only did those who actively participated in the lesson outperform their peers on a post-test, but they also showed increased brain activity. 

After the lesson, students were shown images of the same physics concept while undergoing an MRI, and those who had hands-on experience with the lesson had increased activity in their sensory and motor-related brain areas, proving that hands-on learning equals brains-on learning.  

Makerspace activities can help students explore future STEM/STEAM jobs opportunities

2. Hands-on learning promotes higher test scores  

Study after study that has looked at the relationship between hands-on learning and test scores has resulted in evidence that there is a positive relationship between the two. 

A study from Purdue University compared the test scores of eighth-graders who learned about water quality through lectures to those who learned about water quality by building a water purification device.  

The students who took part in the hands-on approach saw higher test scores and improvement rates. 

“In every area we tested, the students who were involved in a hands-on project learned more and demonstrated a deeper understanding of the issues than the traditional group,” said Melissa Dark, one of the leaders of the study. “This is a significant finding because it proves that with some students — especially groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering — the book-and-lecture format may not be the best way to engage students in learning.” 

In another study published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education, students who had the same pre-test knowledge as their counterparts were allowed to manipulate objects to understand concepts. The result was a statistically significant gain over the control group. 

In yet another study, students who were not allowed to experience hands-on learning were shown to be 1.5 times more likely to fail a course than their hands-on counterparts. 

Discover the most popular hands-on tools to help you engage students in math

Turn brains on with hands-on learning

Discover the most popular hands-on tools to help you engage students in math concepts and make lasting connections. 

3. Hands-on learning benefits English language learners 

While beneficial to all students, researchers noted specific gains for non-native English speakers when exposed to experiential learning.  

In the same Purdue University study noted above, students in the hands-on learning groups all made gains, but the rates of improvement for non-native speakers were significant. Researcher Jody Riskowski surmised that the hands-on work non-native speakers did helped them compensate for the language barriers they experienced, resulting in improved understanding.  

“Students in the design group were able to use drawings, words, or phrases to explain how their purification design addressed water quality issues, so this put them more at ease to express what they had learned,” said Riskowski. 

4. Hands-on learning promotes longer retention  

Hands-on learning also helps learners retain information longer.  

Sian Beilock, researcher from the UChicago study and mind–body connection expert, explained the long-term benefits participants in their study experienced: “Those students who physically experience difficult science concepts learn them better, perform better in class and on quizzes the next day, and the effect seems to play out weeks later, as well.” 

5. Hands-on learning promotes student engagement 

Hands-on learning also appears to be a powerful motivator for students.  

In the study from the Canadian Center of Science and Education, students showed more willingness to participate in math and science activities and showed improvement in their performance when allowed to manipulate objects to understand concepts. 

Of the hands-on group, 90% expressed that the method made them “have more interest in learning mathematics and basic science,” and 90% stated that the “activity-oriented method is the best method of finding out how well l can perform mathematics and basic science tasks.”  

What it means for your classroom 

There are many effective instructional approaches available, and only you can determine the ones that will work best in your unique classroom. However, there is strong evidence that providing learners with manipulatives and promoting project-based, experiential learning can have positive results.  

Integrating more hands-on opportunities into your curriculum can help your learners thrive by providing lessons that not only engage them in the content but boost test scores and retention rates as well.   


Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”  

Hands-on projects may be best way to teach engineering and technology concepts”  

The Impact of Hands-On-Approach on Student Academic Performance in Basic Science and Mathematics” 

Learning by doing helps students perform better in science”  

Physical Experience Enhances Science Learning”  

Benefits to hands-on learning

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: