Lecturing In Class Doesn't Work Anymore; Active Learning Is The Answer

A new study shows that classes in which students are lectured don't work. Instead, teachers should be implementing techniques that include students in the process. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

So many of us have sat through a boring lecture in a giant auditorium able to fit hundreds of students. Hearing a professor drawl on about physics, geology, or chemistry, barely involving the students in the lecture; it makes sense why so many students end up dropping out, failing, or falling asleep during class. These teaching methods don’t work, and it’s time to implement new, inclusive techniques.

A new study from Scott Freeman, a biology lecturer (the irony!) at the University of Washington, Seattle, shows how ineffective lecture classes are when it comes to students’ grades. It found that students who actively participated in class did way better than their lectured counterparts. “The biggest surprise for us was the magnitude of the effect, especially on failure rates,” Freeman said in a press release.

Freeman’s meta-analysis of 225 other studies found that students who took part in an active-learning classroom scored a letter grade one-third higher than those who sat through lectures. When it came to failing grades, however, the effect was obvious. Students who sat through lectures were 55 percent more likely to receive a D or F, or to withdraw from the course altogether, when compared to those who participated in active learning. These findings held true no matter the class size.

“The average letter grade increases by only one-third, but the decreased failure rate is substantial,” said Rory Waterman, a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont, in the release. “Active-learning environments do not necessarily turn students into experts, but they help everyone perform better.” Though Waterman was not involved in the study, she advocates for active-learning techniques.

One such technique emphasized in the study was the use of clickers, which are devices that the students use to respond to questions, among other things. For example, students can respond to a professor’s multiple-choice question, and the answers will then appear as a bar chart showing how many students chose each one. Other ways to involve students in the learning process include group exercises, dramatic presentations, creating personal connections to the material, and building a sense of community in the classroom.

Getting it right is important, though. “You can goof it up if you don’t do it right,” Freeman said about professors, noting that clickers can be misused. “There’s a literature on how to use clickers effectively. People [who] have never read any of those papers. They’re just doing it off the cuff. For a scientists or engineer who’s trained to respect and act on it, it’s just horrifying.”

The findings will most likely not change teaching practices. But for any professor or teacher who is passionate about what they do, it adds to a growing body of evidence that inclusive, active learning is the best way to pass knowledge.

Source: Freeman S, Eddy S, Jordt H, et al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS. 2014.