June 3rd, 2015

More Evidence That Active Learning Trumps Lecturing


Student in lecture hall

The June-July issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter highlights a study you don’t want to miss. It’s a meta-analysis of 225 studies that compare STEM classes taught using various active learning approaches with classes taught via lecture. “The results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sessions, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” (p. 8410) Carl Wieman, a Nobel-winning physicist who now does research on teaching and learning, describes the work as a “massive effort” that provides “a much more extensive quantitative analysis of the research on active learning in college and university STEM courses than previously existed.” (p. 8319) And what does he make of these results? “The implications of these meta-analysis results for instruction are profound, assuming they are indicative of what could be obtained if active learning methods replaced the lecture instruction that dominates U.S. postsecondary STEM instruction.” (pp. 8319-8320) That’s a long way from the guarded language usually found in commentaries on scientific results. Teaching Professor Blog

The findings of the meta-analysis aren’t are all that unexpected. Study after study, not just in the STEM fields, but pretty much across the board, have reported findings that favor active learning approaches over lecture. Most of us, especially readers of a blog like this one, don’t need to be convinced. We know that learning is harder from the sidelines. If deep understanding is the objective, then the learner had best get out there and play the game. Watching others problem-solve, think critically, paint watercolors, or start an IV may provide a sense of how it’s done, but that’s not how you learn to perform on the field.

There is less defense of lecture than there used to be and more apologizing by those who do. “I have to lecture. What else can you do in these large classes?” “I can’t get the content covered if I don’t lecture.” “Students want me to lecture.” Valid excuses? Not really. Examples of active learning strategies being used in large classes abound. Teachers may cover the content, but if that doesn’t promote learning, does it really matter that it’s been covered? And since when did education become governed by what learners may think they need or want?

But despite what we know, those apologies, and the resultant feelings of guilt, there’s still an awful lot of lecture happening in most fields and on most campuses. It remains our default instructional mode. We go there first and we stay there the longest. Lecturing allows us to pledge allegiance to the content.

I know, I’m sounding adamant, but the evidence is in. The case is closed. Active learning wins. If we aspire to make our practice evidence-based, then we need to do a very honest analysis of how often we’re finding ourselves front and center, covering the content. We need to more aggressively raise the issue with our colleagues, in our departments, at our institutions, and within our professional associations.

No, lecturing doesn’t need to be against the law with harsh sentences levied against those who continue to do it. I still believe there are times when teachers need to share their expertise, when efficiency makes telling students the only reasonable option. Teachers can explain things clearly, cogently, and with passion. There’s a place for that in the classroom as well, but it’s a much smaller place than it currently occupies in many classrooms.

It is true that we still don’t know as much about active learning as we need to know. For example, we don’t how much is needed to make a difference in a class session or across the course. We don’t know which of the many active learning approaches (group work, clickers, online discussion, hands-on experience, etc.) work best with what kinds of content and for what kinds of learners. We’ve got lots to learn, but we definitely know enough to challenge ourselves and our colleagues to step back from lecture and move forward with approaches that feature students taking action.

References: Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okorafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P., (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (23), 8410-8415.

Weiman, C.E., (2014. Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111 (23), 8319-8320.

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  • Steve Markoff

    Of course, there are MANY reasons why lecturing is still used, and active learning is avoided. First, active learning puts a greater onus on preparation and followup on the instructor and requires more thinking and in-class energy. Why the heck should they spend all that time when I can just read the PowerPoint?, one might ask. Second, running active learning sessions is a distinct skill that, like other skills, must be learned and practiced before one becomes competent. Third, most professors think of themselves as bastions of knowledge and just love to spout all of their stuff, demonstrating for the students how totally smart they are!! There is a psychological need to be viewed as knowledgeable by their subjects. Why should they choose a teaching method where they can't "strut their stuff"? The ego gets in the way. The goal is not to make learning EASIER. Easy learning, we now know, does NOT result in deep, durable or flexible learning. Desirable difficulty MUST be part of the process.

    • elenkus

      And isn't it sometimes appropriate for that difficulty to be in developing good listening and active processing skills? Shouldn't most people know how to listen for an hour or two at a stretch?

    • PhilosophyCRProf

      Good lecturing takes plenty of preparation–I'd say around 3 hours at home for every hour in the classroom. With a lot of experience, you can knock it down to 2.5 or even 2 hours at home for every hour in the classroom. I only use PowerPoint for 10% or less of my classes, as I find it doesn't invite discussion as much as "regular" face-to-face lecturing does.

  • Tim Michael

    Metastudy or not, active learning during class time clearly reduces the amount of material that can be covered in a semester. As we shift more toward "flipped" classrooms, though, there may be a role for active learning after students have taken the burden of basics upon themselves. As I've seen it applied, however, active learning helps highlight a limited number of things, maybe even core things, at the expense of depth and breadth.

    • Michael Maguire

      Yours is an interesting opinion/experience, Tim. My own experience is that, over a semester-long course, I cover more material, with more depth and more breadth with an active learning-focused lesson delivery. For me, the results are starkly different when I compare them to lecture-only (or, mostly-lecture) teaching. I'm one example of confirmation of the metastudy findings.

      As an early-career college instructor, I had a similar opinion to yours – concerned about compromising content for the sake of engaging students in active learning. 20+ years later, and with resources, great mentors, collegial support (and some of my own learning about pedagogical/adragogical best practices), I've had great experiences with active learning. It's definitely worth the "front-loaded" planning time to deliver rich content via an active learning approach. I have better results with students retention of content. Their papers are higher-quality (here's where I observe the 'more depth'/'more breadth'). Their group work is focused. Their co-curricular encounters are more relevant. Their online and social media contributions deepen and broaden their rich understanding of content. With an occasional nod to content that invites a good lecture, I lecture. And, for most other teaching encounters I have in my three courses-per-semester and 120+ students, I'm committed to active learning.

      • Tim michael

        I’m sure there are many things that can be taught well using some type of active learning process. I remember back when I was starting out almost 25 years ago ‘flipping’ the class was what everybody did. They expected students to engage the material in a variety of ‘active’ ways away from class and saved class time for the ‘whys and how’s’ such as ‘why should you care about this stuff?’ and ‘how does this material fit with everything else in our program of study?’ Unfortunately, as with every other tool, having a hammer called ‘active learning’ doesn’t mean that every different class is made up of nails.

  • Pam

    I am not a classroom educator but am wondering if some balance of lecture and active learning during a class is not possible?

    • Tricia

      I think that a balance can work. I observed an intro bio class last year with 300+ students in attendance each day. The instructor utilized active learning interspersed with mini-lectures. The active learning activities were used as a lead in to a mini-lecture or as follow-up after a mini-lecture. Students were engaged throughout the class period and class attendance was high. I am sure a lot of time was put into the preparation for each class – time seems to be the common hangup and I am not sure how we will convince those who are strapped for time to start making changes. I also agree that it is a skill and it will take time and several iterations to get it to work in your classroom.

      • Tim michael

        And I’d be willing to bet that the same course taught 20 years ago covered 30% more material. Active learning takes the place of content in many cases I’ve observed.

  • Dave

    Applying before understanding may make students think they "get it" because they did a "real world" activity, but any times students can do an activity and find the right answers on a test, but the underlying principles are lost on them without the basics. To me it's about motivation to learn. Activities vie and group work motivate some students, but I don't think that means all other forms of learning are inferior as implied in this very one sided article.

  • Bob King

    "The case is closed. Active learning wins."
    Hmmm. Pretty strong words. Clearly a "true believer." I have found that true believers always see different opinions as "apologies." (Caveat: I LOVE active learning strategies. At the Teaching Professor conference this last weekend, I learned about Socrative (among other tools) and I have already used it– the first teaching day after the conference!).
    First of all, the author seems to be conflating "active learning" with a lecture-less, "flipped classroom" pedagogical ideology. From what I saw at the conference, this was not the case. No sessions that I went to adamantly rejected lecture as a useful tool. They did emphasize how we can supplement whatever tools we use in the classroom.
    Also, despite the author's weak claim about disciplines "across the board" ( "Study after study, not just in the STEM fields, but pretty much across the board, have reported findings that favor active learning approaches over lecture"), it seems that the strongest case for the "flipped classroom" is, indeed, in the STEM disciplines.
    Active learning is new take on an old approach to teaching, and a welcome one that powerfully incorporates available technological tools. The lecture is a useful tool, like the others. The problem comes when true believers contrast lecture-only classrooms to well-prepared active-learning classrooms (NOT necessarily "flipped" classes). Productive active-learning practices, like well-prepared lectures, reflect thoughtful educators who combine all available tools.

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  • elenkus

    Strawman. It is poor lecturing that fails, not lecturing per se. Those who argue against lecturing always end up having to make some comment about how necessary it is. And note how they typically deliver their rants via lectures and monologues such as blog posts.

    Lecture well and the listener's mind will be quite active. Drone on and you'll get crappy results. The same is true for discussion, group work, project-based learning, and any other pedagogy.

    • PhilosophyCRProf

      Exactly, Elenkus! Poor lecturing is awful; great lecturing is inspirational. As a college student in the 1970s, 90% of my classroom experience was with good lecturers. They did everyting "wrong" according to today's true believers in constructivism: the classes were teacher-centered, there was never any group work, traditional individual papers and exams, etc. But they were absolutely fascinating! And most of us students were disappointed when the professors were ill and couldn't show up for class! How often does that happen in today's colleges? I am a college philosophy professor myself and have had to resign myself to combining "active" learning (i.e., students sneak looks at their FB pages on their phones) with lecturing. Highly recommended is an excellent study by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, both in full and summarized formats. Or Google "Direct Instruction". I'll take an old-fashioned doctor or dentist who learned by direct instruction any day over these young "actively instructed" ones.

    • Tim michael

      How true! If nothing else, I imagine that most of us would agree that dry, out-of-touch and outdated lecture materials are next to useless in any discipline. Regardless of the technique we have to keep things interesting and relevant in the classroom.

      Some of the desperate search for ‘better’ classroom techniques is really a quest for ‘more entertaining’ classroom techniques, precipitated by the false idea that we must adapt our techniques to capture the interests and engagements of the audience. I will argue, in contrast, that we would all be hesitant to use a heart surgeon or bridge engineer who took classes that were designed to keep the average student fascinated. Part of the learning experience for students is learning how to explore and think at a higher level. I think most of us with any degree of experience have already figured out that the average Millennial student knows how to absorb the spoon feeding that most advocates of ‘active learning’ are really talking about.

  • Canadaprof

    My colleague and I co-teach a big introductory course that has many components, including active learning style classroom time. We've eliminated about 80% of the lectures. It's wonderful.
    My colleague has tenure. I do not.
    My latest student evaluations were shocking. 'they only tried to teach us to think and nothing useful' was my favourite comment and it represents very well the entire canon of the comments. These are first year students competing for limited spaces in professional schools (med and vet). These are not students motivated to learn, but rather, to achieve grades and they have learned in high school that this is done by memorising content.
    Sad state.
    Let's see if I get tenure despite my evaluations.

    • PhilosophyCRProf

      Someday, I would like to see a study on when the demonization-of-memorization began in education. Back in the 1970s and through the 1980s, memorization *without comprehension* was rightly criticized. Today, any kind of memorization is villified. I even have a few undergrad philosophy students who are proud of never having memorized their time tables! Today's technology is making our brains *less* able to comprehend, analyze and synthesize ideas, concepts and information. The converstation between Theuth and Thamus in Plato's *Phaedrus* has quite a lot to say about this issue.

  • Steve Markoff

    I find it amazing that when you present some sort of anecdotal or non-scientific evidence of a teaching method that works better than theirs, all the researchers yell "but where is your research to support it?" …. then, when you present solid research results, they still argue, giving you anecdotal evidence about how they feel, etc. What hypocrites.

    Go read the book "Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning". Then keep on lecturing and lecturing and lecturing.

    • Sigurd

      I'm reading the book, but it seems that it would be better if my students read it. It's about how to take control of your own learning.

  • Dennis Wolff

    Brevity is obviously not among my strengths… Nonetheless, it seems to me as I have pondered this debate over the past few years that people tend to fixate on style rather than the overall substance.

    All evidence I have ever seen shows that a good teacher will achieve good relative outcomes irrespective of the methods employed because they simultaneously recognize and rectify the hurdles hindering individual student progress. Moreover, the most efficacious teaching methods are already known by good parents and teachers, be they animal or human, and have been for about as long as the species existed. Those of us old enough to have been taught by the brilliant and capable women then largely constrained to a few careers such as teaching saw this first hand. Consider what happened in grade school math where they: 1) stimulated interest/explained why understanding was important, 2) identified facts that the students needed to memorize, 3) showed how to use the math in class, 4) assigned math problems, 5) graded the math problems, 6) provided individualized remedial help to the extent possible, 7) tested on the content, 8) watched students apply that knowledge, and 9) provided minor corrections as necessary over time. Can teaching ever get better than that?

    Students are always looking for short-cuts that don’t exist. A colleague noted that, ”Students now often have all of the information in the palm of their hand, but it doesn’t do them any good if they don’t know what to enter into the Search box.” Higher education classes are typically so large and impersonal that students are lucky if faculty know their name. A student rarely receives individualized attention before an exam, while working on a project, etc. All any of us can do now is cope.

    My belief is that pre-class self-learning modules, focused reading assignments, lectures, etc., remain invaluable as illustrated by the following analogy. I am not a trained artist. If asked to draw a picture of my cluttered desk, the most important thing to be established for me or by me is the boundaries of the picture. Once I know that, I can employ my sense of perspective to place the shapes in the correct place and continually refine them to add depth and detail to my image. My medical students don’t know where to draw the boundaries or the granularity that is expected. That is what I try to do for them with my pre-class materials and lecture notes.

    I believe in active learning but have seen many applications of supposedly active learning that I considered ineffective. Sitting me down at a table with others, throwing something in front of us, and telling us to brainstorm is a sure-fired way for my mind to turn to mush. I can’t hear myself think as some begin to feed off of one another’s ideas. I need my quiet time to know what I think and why before I have anything to say. I have seen group sessions where a few people do the work and the others browse the web until it’s time to copy the answer that all agree is correct. I’ve seen group sessions where everybody verbally reports on their small part of the assignment and few learned more than their small part. Clicker questions tend to be slow and inefficient. For active learning to be meaningful in my view, it must: 1) be individualized to the extent possible (e.g., I make use of random number generators in worksheets), 2) provide a means for students to review the PROCESS by which the correct answer was achieved and 3) include a summative exam on the process. Too often, students leave active learning sessions knowing little more than the answer that happened to be the correct one for the question posed. Weeks later, the answer is meaningless because the question was forgotten. Unless students have a simple means for replicating the process by which the correct answer was obtained, I consider the time wasted.

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  • Tori holder

    Active learning is not limited to group work. Active learning means that the learner is physically active in the process of meaning making. This can be achieved many ways, but ultimately the student must choose to be an active participant. As an educator the way you design your lesson can foster an environment where this is achieved by a high percentage of individuals or by the intrinsically motivated minority. Many teachers and scholars were actively I engaged by lectures when they were students, but the average student is not. Building in time to reflect, journal, and discuss the content is essential for eliciting students to process and make meaning of the information. Check out the work of Bobbi DePorter and Barbara Given if you are interested in understanding the learning process from a neurological perspective. You do not have to be in the STEM field to understand them either.

  • Steve Markoff

    Have we come to any agreement as to what “active learning” is?

    I use the Socratic method. Students have to prepare by reading the material and working on custom made problems.

    The problems are then reviewed in Socratic fashion and every student is called on every single class. There are no silly learning games going on but also, there are no PowerPoints or “lecture”. Through my questions the students learn to teach themselves accounting.

    While all the material is covered on the exam, the purpose of class are to cover the most difficult material, the most important and analysis and application.

    I give three midterms and the final. We have 25 teaching sessions and cover maybe 20 chapters.

    Of course this is not new. In fact, it is the oldest teaching technique known to man. And I’m not sure if it qualifies as “active” learning. But we sure do get a hell of a lot done!!In fact, it is the oldest teaching technique known to man. And I’m not sure if it qualifies as “active” learning. But we sure do get a hell of a lot done

    • Tim michael

      The Socratic method, and the traditional classroom with instructor questions should be considered active learning in my opinion. Requiring students to discuss or even present the daily material (often by calling on them at random) can be very effective in forcing students to take ownership of their own learning process and outcomes. This environment can also use peer pressure and personal pride effectively to keep students current. Just like we did back in the old days, from first grade onward. If by ‘active learning’ you mean ‘go to the board and work this problem in real time’ then I’ll agree that it can be damned effective. If it means ‘split into groups and let the math major figure out how to explain the problem’ then not so much.

      • PhilosophyCRProf

        Steve Markoff and Tim Michael, I agree with you both! Socratic questioning and lecturing followed by discussion are time-honored teaching methods. I also call on students randomly, which helps keep them on their toes and, as I said in another post, PowerPoints make up only 10% or less of my lectures for the entire semester.

        • Steve Markoff

          Cold calling is must. Students show up prepared because they don’t want to be embarrassed. Also, after one student answers, asking another student to follow up and react really causes them to listen to the answers of others.

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  • Rich Furman

    Dare I be a bit too pragmatic here, but perhaps it is about balance. There are excellent teachers who use more lecture than experiential learning, and excellent teachers who are more experiential. Its all about learning, growing and keeping it fresh, not just for the students, but for ourselves. Evidence based practices are important to the degree to which they are consonant with our values and our own "practice wisdom."

    I for one have found that varying my approaches, each and every class, tends to yield the best results (as measured by student outcomes). Lecture, group work, experiential learning,, multi sensory learning- each has a place in helping us meet our learning objectives, helping students with various needs, and helping us engage in work that is meaningful and joyous.

    Rich Furman
    Write Publish Thrive

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  • michael hasenstab

    Group learning activities work well in my classrooms. They can gab away and waste that time if they like, but there will be at least one group that works hard, which makes the others feel pretty damn stupid. Face it, they grew up on activity based learning–keeping them busy in school (and at home–Moms and Dads?) works!