Carl Wieman recently called a very important Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' article to my attention. The article's title clearly describes its subject and conclusion: Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. The authors of the article - Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt,and Mary Pat Wenderoth - are, or have been, associated with the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, where some excellent research is being done on the use of active learning in biology.
In this article,the authors used a meta-analysis of studies that had compared some form of active learning to lecturing in STEM subjects:
To test the hypothesis that lecturing maximizes learning and course performance, we metaanalyzed 225 studies that reported data on examination scores or failure rates when comparing student performance in undergraduate science, technology, engineering,and mathematics (STEM) courses under traditional lecturing versus active learning...
More specifically, we compared the results of experiments that documented student performance in courses with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing...
The active learning interventions varied widely in intensity and implementation, and included approaches as diverse as occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction,and studio or workshop course designs.
The authors controlled for issues of both student and instructor equivalence in the active learning and lecturing classes. Examination scores were from both instructor prepared quizzes and concept inventories.
The results of this analysis are pretty dramatic:
The data reported here indicate that active learning increases examination performance by just under half a SD (standard deviation) and that lecturing increases failure rates by 55%. The heterogeneity analyses indicate that (i) these increases in achievement hold across all of the STEM disciplines and occur in all class sizes, course types, and course levels; and (ii) active learning is particularly beneficial in small classes and at increasing performance on concept inventories
The improvement in average exam performance with active learning is impressive, but may underestimate the actual improvement that occurs. As pointed out by the authors, since dropouts tend to occur at the lower end of the grade distribution, the lower dropout rate in the active learning classes probably decreases their exam averages. Most impressive, however, is the much larger failure rates (defined as D or F grade or withdrawal) found in the lecture classes compared to the active learning classes. The authors put this lecture failure rate increase into an interesting perspective by looking at medical clinical trials:
If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.
The authors conclude that this analysis makes it clear that students are significantly disadvantaged by pure lecture classes, and that it is time to stop that traditional "treatment".
The active learning classes considered in this analysis represent many different approaches and many different levels of intensity of active learning. As such, it is impressive that this "non-optimized" mixture of active learning was significantly more effective than traditional lectures. As suggested by the authors, this indicates that the focus now should shift to improving approaches to active learning through use of advances in educational psychology and cognitive science, and to determining which active learning approaches work best under what circumstances. Sounds like a very sound suggestion indeed!