This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.
There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).
The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.
What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.
On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)
The research team concluded:
Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.
The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?
And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:
Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).
Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.
I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.
1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.
S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111