Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Active Learning Beats Lectures for STEM Classes

Most college students have had the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall with a professor standing at the front, lecturing -- and sometimes even droning on -- for an hour or more at a time.  Especially when the material being taught is in one of the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, or mathematics -- this kind of teaching can be difficult for students to follow, and interest levels may lag.

When a group of researchers did a meta-analysis (a review of research findings) of 225 studies that compared student performance in STEM classes that utilized traditional lecture format versus those that were taught by "active learning" methods, they found, according to the National Science Foundation, that 55 percent more students fail lecture-based courses than classes with at least some active learning. This may mean that these students are unable to move ahead to more advanced STEM classes, something that can impede national initiatives to increase the number of students majoring in these fields. 

Active learning includes such practices as asking questions and using "clickers" to tally responses, calling on individual students or groups of students, or having students clarify information for other students. Active learning is not necessarily related to class size; it can take place even in lecture halls of several hundred students.

So, what does this mean for students and instructors? As the lead author of the study, Professor Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, noted when questioned by the National Science Foundation, "If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning, according to our analysis," Freeman said. "There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we're talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out every year." It's something for both students and professors to think about.

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