Combine Lecture with Active Learning

By Aleszu Bajak, from the journal Science, 5/12/14

Are your lectures droning on? Change lectures up every 10 minutes with more active teaching techniques and more students will succeed, researchers say. A new study finds that undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods….

[In the study, biologist Scott Freeman at the University of Washington, Seattle, found] teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams…. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement—about 6%—could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.”…

Although there is no single definition of active learning approaches, they include asking students to answer questions by using handheld clickers, calling on individuals or groups randomly, or having students clarify concepts to each other and reach a consensus on an issue.

Freeman says he’s started using such techniques even in large classes. “My introductory biology course has up to 700 students,” he says. “For the ultimate class session I’m showing PowerPoint slides, but everything is a question and I use clickers and random calling.” Freeman estimates that active learning approaches could enable success for tens of thousands of students who might otherwise drop or fail STEM courses….

Noah Finkelstein, a physics professor who directs the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says, “I don’t think there should be a monolithic stance about lecture or no lecture. There are still times when lectures will be needed, but the traditional mode of stand-and-deliver is less effective at promoting student learning….”

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