One consistent finding in educational research

One consistent finding in educational research

JUNE 3RD, 2015

More Evidence That Active Learning
Trumps Lecturing
By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD

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.
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 problemsolve, 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

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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), 84108415.
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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