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Undergraduate Education

Faculty beliefs about active learning hinder adoption

Large survey reveals those who experienced active learning are more likely to teach with it

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 10, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 9


Photo of a professor standing in front of a chalkboard with chemical structures.
Credit: Shutterstock
Lecturing is less effective for student learning than active learning approaches.

In-class problem solving, group discussions, and similar instructional approaches collectively known as active learning are more effective for student learning than lecture-based instruction, studies have shown. But many postsecondary instructors still spend the bulk of class time lecturing. Why resistance to active learning persists has not been clear.

A new large-scale survey aims to address this question, probing factors that are thought to hinder the adoption of active-learning approaches. Charles Henderson of Western Michigan University and colleagues surveyed 3,769 chemistry, mathematics, and physics instructors who taught introductory courses during the 2017–18 and/or 2018–19 academic years at institutions including two-year colleges, predominantly undergraduate four-year institutions, and universities (PLOS One 2021, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0247544). Survey respondents estimated the percentage of time they spent lecturing, which the researchers used as a proxy for conventional instruction. The researchers interpreted less time spent lecturing as more time spent using active-learning methods.

The survey revealed that factors related to the classroom setup mattered: instructors with more students and traditional classrooms, such as lecture halls, spend more time lecturing than instructors with fewer students and classrooms specifically designed for small-group work. But these structural factors are not the whole story. Faculty members who were exposed to active learning as students were more likely to use the approach themselves, independent of other factors like class size. The data reveal that at least some instructors in every context use active learning. However, the researchers say that policy changes should be enacted to help more instructors switch.

The data “tee up work on causation—trying to get at what is really going on with resisters. Maybe they just need a nudge from their chair, or a mentor, or a little structure to get some exposure to the literature of evidence-based teaching,’” says Scott Freeman, a teaching professor emeritus at the University of Washington, who has studied the effectiveness of active-learning approaches.

Cultural and structural changes in teaching evaluations and classroom setups might help, Henderson says. In addition, “institutions that know they have poor structures for active learning likely would benefit from making more efforts on professional development.”


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