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Active Learning Beats Lectures

Meta-analysis of 225 studies shows that active learning is consistently better across disciplines and class size

by Celia Henry Arnaud
June 2, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 22

Photo shows biology professor Scott Freeman using active-learning methods with his genetics class.
Credit: U of Washington
Active-learning methods work even in large classes. Here, Freeman discusses a question with students in a genetics class.

Scott Freeman hopes his new study will do for evidence-based teaching methods what the surgeon general’s 1964 report did for research on smoking—shift the conversation.

Freeman, a biology lecturer and education researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, and his colleagues have performed a meta-analysis that confirms what some educators already know: Students get better grades and fail less when professors use active-learning methods in the classroom (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2014, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111).

“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.”

Freeman and coworkers combed the literature looking for studies that reported the effects of active-learning methods on student exam scores and failure rates. They defined active learning as any method that engages students in the process of learning as opposed to passively listening to a lecture. These methods ranged from using “clickers” (audience response devices) to having students work in groups on problems or in-class worksheets.

They meta-analyzed 225 studies that cut across science disciplines, active-learning method, and class size. Whether chemistry or physics, small class or large, active-learning methods—no matter how modest—consistently outperformed traditional lecture formats.

“The biggest surprise for us was the magnitude of the effect, especially on failure rates,” Freeman says. On average, exam scores increased by one-third of a letter grade. But the effect on failure rates was much greater. 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. And the active-learning methods can be used for as little as 10% of classroom time.

“The average letter grade increases by only one-third, but the decreased failure rate is substantial,” Waterman says. “Active-learning environments do not necessarily turn students into experts, but they help everyone perform better.”

The findings suggest that active-learning approaches could improve student retention in science disciplines, says Susan Singer, director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation. “It is encouraging news as NSF convenes an interagency team to implement the undergraduate goals of the Federal STEM Education Five-Year Strategic Plan,” Singer says (C&EN, June 17, 2013, page 25). One of the plan’s goals is to increase the use of evidence-based teaching methods to improve student learning and increase retention.

The study also reveals that to get the high learning gains active learning promises, “you actually have to implement it well,” says Andrew Feig, a chemistry professor at Wayne State University and another organizer of the new chemistry faculty workshop.

“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.”

Observers hope that the results will encourage more professors to successfully adopt active-learning methods in their classrooms.

“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.”

But Singer notes that the analysis alone isn’t likely to be enough to drive the widespread update and implementation of teaching innovations. “This work adds to the growing body of knowledge on effective teaching practice, but evidence alone is insufficient to leverage much-needed change.”


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