Active learning greatly outperforms passive lecturing in classrooms

BORED_classroomMost University professors still rely on passive lectures to get their subject across. A meta-study which analyzed 225 studies found that active teaching – lectures that actively engage students and make the learning experience two-way – improves grades and significantly reduces fail rates. The findings add to an already body of literature that suggests the current dominant teaching model is underperforming and obsolete.

Revising the way education is being transferred

“It’s no longer necessary to prove that active-learning methods are better than traditional lectures,” says Rory Waterman, a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont who is an advocate for active-learning methods and a coorganizer of the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative New Faculty Workshop. “The field can instead focus on which active-learning methods are most effective and how they can be best implemented.”

Scott Freeman, a biology lecturer and education researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues combed through a myriad of studies looking for data that would tell them what kind of impact active learning has. In their paper, the researchers define active learning  as any method that engages students in the process of learning as opposed to passively listening to a lecture. This includes anything from so-called ‘clickers’ – an audience response device which allows lecture attendees to participate in the lecture actively – to the common, yet proven study groups, big or small. The findings suggests that active learning outperforms passive lecturing on all levels – be it chemistry or physics, small or large groups.

On average, score cards improved by one-third of a letter grade. While this might not seem like much, the importance of active learning becomes striking when we look at how it improves student retention rates. Students in traditional lectures are 55% more likely to receive a grade of D or F or to withdraw from a class than are students being taught with active-learning approaches. This tremendous improvement, the researchers write, costs only 10% of the lecture’s time. So just by engaging students for even five minutes during a lecture, a professor can significantly improve his class’ scores and overall learning – statistically speaking, at least.

Susan Singer, director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, believes active learning is most important in science disciplines, where student retention rates are usually lower than other fields.

The study warns, however, that it’s not enough to implement active learning in your class – you have to do it right, too.

“You can goof it up if you don’t do it right,” Freeman explains. He’s witnessed “clicker abuse” in some classes. “There’s a literature on how to use clickers effectively. People have never read any of those papers. They’re just doing it off the cuff. For a scientist or engineer who’s trained to respect evidence and act on it, it’s just horrifying.”

Eventually, Freeman hopes, the study might help educators who still rely on traditional teaching methods to revise their course and migrate to a more engaged method.

“Universities are still over-reliant on lecture-based teaching,” Waterman says, “so helping faculty identify the minimum or first steps they need to take in their classrooms to see these incredible gains in student performance has always seemed to me to be the most practical way to advance student-centered learning.”

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