Traditional lectures versus active learning - what it means to me as a wannabe academic

Recently, I happened to be in Brisbane when the EduTECH conference was on. In addition to the eight “congresses” that focused on various aspects of education and technology, and the eight post-conference “masterclasses”, there was also a free two-day expo and seminars.

I signed up for three of these free seminars:

  • Prototyping learning spaces that work for students using a designed approach
  • Why we should teach online global collaboration
  • Making phones into labs

The first was delivered by Prof Rob Fitzgerald from the INSPIRE Centre at the University of Canberra.

INSPIRE is a hub and network for new approaches to learning, communication and collaboration based in the Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics at the University of Canberra. It is learning commons, a place to imagine, experiment and design new ways of working and learning digitally. INSPIRE services highlight quality teaching and contemporary learning practices through staying connected to global initiatives and trends about learning design and design thinking. They focus on a futures perspective and developing foresight and dispositions, not just knowledge and skills. [Source.]

 

What stood out most for me from Prof Fitzgerald's seminar was his reference to traditional lectures versus active learning. Referring to a 2014 meta-analysis, he stated that it was almost unethical to delivery traditional lectures when it is known students are 1.5 times more likely to fail compared with active learning approaches.

A screenshot of my tweet during Prof Fitzgerald's seminar.

A screenshot of my tweet during Prof Fitzgerald's seminar.

While this isn't "new" news and I do remember these findings hitting the headlines a couple of years ago, I hadn't really given it much thought since. But what this seminar did was pique my interest in the topic of the way academics teach and the way students learn, and make me think about how this will impact on the type of academic I want to be.

To weigh the evidence, Scott Freeman (University of Washington, Seattle, USA) and a group of colleagues analysed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman said; and the exam improvement — about 6% — could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.” [Source.]

Changes in failure rate. (A) Data plotted as percent change in failure rate in the same course, under active learning versus lecturing. The mean change (12%) is indicated by the dashed vertical line. (B) Kernel density plots of failure rates under active learning and under lecturing. The mean failure rates under each classroom type (21.8% and 33.8%) are shown by dashed vertical lines. From Freeman et al. (2014).

Changes in failure rate. (A) Data plotted as percent change in failure rate in the same course, under active learning versus lecturing. The mean change (12%) is indicated by the dashed vertical line. (B) Kernel density plots of failure rates under active learning and under lecturing. The mean failure rates under each classroom type (21.8% and 33.8%) are shown by dashed vertical lines. From Freeman et al. (2014).

While there is no single definition of active learning, interventions include approaches as diverse as problem-solving in groups, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs. The consensus definition for the study was:

“Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

When I think back to my undergraduate degree, the majority of which was undertaken as an off-campus student with brief, intensive residential schools that consisted of back-to-back practicals and the occasional lecture, the lectures I enjoyed the most were the ones I was able to actively participate in by answering questions or collaborating with my peers.

Today, there is even more active learning happening at my University.

First-year Chemistry lectures are no longer a stand-and-deliver affair: the unit coordinator actively engages with her students by working through actual examples with them, including balancing equations. She has seen an improvement in pass rates since implementing this approach.

By the time I enrolled in one of my last units, Insect-Plant Interactions, the unit coordinator was no longer spending face-to-face time talking at her students. Instead, lecture podcasts were available to listen to online and this valuable face-to-face time was spent working collaboratively on tutorial questions around a big table or, for off-campus students, dialling in to an Adobe Connect session where we could chat with our unit coordinator and each other and work through the same tutorial questions.

I think as a science student I was fortunate. So much of what I learned during my undergraduate degree had a practical or laboratory component (hence the intensive schools), but this shouldn't mean active learning is restricted to these obviously hands-on teaching activities. As a Zoology student I think I was even more fortunate. So many of my unit coordinators were incredibly engaging and went out of their ways to deliver lectures that we could be part of rather than just talking at us.

More of it, I say!

Academics around the globe have being challenging the “sage on a stage” approach to teaching STEM courses for decades, arguing that group activities and questions are more effective at engaging students. Prof Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University who has campaigned against stale lecturing techniques for about 30 years, had this to say about the meta-analysis:

“This is a really important article — the impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data. […] It’s good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis — an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.” [Source.]

What does all this mean? Well, as a wannabe academic, it helps me identify how I might teach in the future to get the best out of my students and to arm them with the skills they will need to succeed not just through Higher Education, but through life. Because, at the end of the day, a degree is just a small fraction of our expected lifespan, and the world is a much bigger place than a university campus and it's even bigger than a lecture theatre.