In a report discussed on Inside Higher Education today, researchers from two major universities completed a meta-analysis of studies that examined the use of active learning in STEM related collegiate courses. The researchers, all professors of Biology and Ecology, were motivated to examine the “pipeline problem.” Even though there’s an increasing demand for STEM prepared students in the United States, students who enter college planning to study a STEM-related field often do not complete the degree. In fact, the researchers write, “less than 40% of US students who enter university with an interest in STEM, and just 20% of STEM-interested underrepresented minority students, finish with a STEM degree.” In the US, universities are losing students in the STEM pipeline and the researchers wondered “why?”
Maybe, the researcher wondered, it had something to do with how STEM instructors taught. While many educational theorists push for more constructivist pedagogy, the STEM community hasn’t necessarily adopted active learning strategies over more traditional, lecture-based instruction. Understanding that “scientists are committed to teaching based on evidence rather than tradition,” the researchers set out to examine the evidence on active learning in STEM collegiate courses.
Compiling data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses, the researchers found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning. Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments. How compelling was the analysis to the researchers? Since they were traditionally trained scientists, they communicated their findings in language that other scientists would understand. “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.” Taking it one step further, the researchers estimated the financial cost of the failures in lecture-based courses. Based on the reported participation numbers across the studies, the researchers estimated “there would be over $3,500,000 in saved tuition dollars for the study population, had all students been exposed to active learning.” Based on the analysis they conducted, the researchers were convinced; active learning works.
While the research seems compelling, it’s clear that the tradition of lecturing is not easily set aside. Looking at the comments on the Inside Higher Education article, several people have questioned the research, undermined the comparisons or attacked constructivism entirely. Or look at the article written on the Guardian last fall. Titled “In praise of the university lecture,” the author, a professor of sociology, discusses the importance of lecturing and how it helps faculty demonstrate “scholarship in action.” Lost, however, is a focus on student learning and achievement. But that’s the most important part of what we do. Education isn’t just a performance that faculty conduct for students. It’s an active pursuit that should involve all members of a classroom community, faculty and students alike. And data shows that incorporating active learning strategies can positively impact student learning. I find it surprising, however, that a profession that values evidence-based arguments so readily dismisses research that challenges tradition.