Across the years, I’ve written about the value of active learning numerous times. In 2014, I wrote about a comprehensive meta-analysis on STEM-related college classes. The study compiled data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses and 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. 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.”
I’m returning to this 2014 post and research because of a recent study that was published in Science (and reported on the Faculty Focus blog). Described as the “largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” the study monitored almost 550 faculty teaching 700 courses at 25 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The results were pretty alarming. 55% of the STEM classroom interactions involved lecture-based instruction. Faculty Focus interviewed one of the researchers, Marilyne Stains for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and discussed some of the findings. In the post, Stains discussed how their research used direct observation over self-reported surveys.
“Surveys and self-reports are useful to get people’s perceptions of what they are doing,” Stains said. “If you ask me about how I teach, I might tell you, ‘I spend 50 percent of my class having students talk to each other.’ But when you actually come to my class and observe, you may find that it’s more like 30 percent. Our perception is not always accurate.”
And that’s where the study and the Faculty Focus article offer some assistance. In their research, Stains and her colleagues used a tool called COPUS (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM) to conduct their observations. The tool was funded by the National Science Foundation and is available for free online so instructors can study their own instructional practices. There are even instructions for collecting data and a video to improve inter-rater reliability. A motivated STEM instructor could have a colleague or two observe their classroom and better identify how their classes are actually taught. In the study, the researchers suggest conducting at least four observations to provide “a reliable characterization of instructional practices.”
Another interesting finding from the study was that despite faculty identifying classroom layout and class size as being barriers to implementing active learning strategies, “flexible classroom layouts and small course sizes do not necessarily lead to an increase in student-centered practices.” Looking at the data, regardless of the classroom physical layout, didactic instructional strategies were employed in most of the observed lessons. Considering the overwhelming research on the academic benefits for active learning, I find this shocking. But so do the researchers. At the end of the article, they call for institutions to challenge “the status quo” and to revise “their tenure, promotion, and merit-recognition policies to incentivize and reward implementation of evidence-based instructional practices.” And that’s a great starting point but I wonder whether it’s enough.
I’m reminded of another blog post I shared in 2016 where I discussed “alternative frameworks” and their impact on people’s beliefs and actions. In science, these alternative frameworks impact how we teach different concepts. For instance, I can tell students thousands of times that gravity acts on heavy and light object the same way and that they fall (and accelerate) at the same rates when air resistance is disregarded. But their alternative frameworks get in the way. Their lived experiences have taught them differently and me telling them doesn’t change their perceptions.
In a way, that’s what has happened with the active learning research. Despite hearing about the benefits of active learning, teachers perceive that lecture works better and me them won’t change their teaching. Using promotion, tenure and merit-recognition systems to force teachers to employ student-centered teaching may change their actions but won’t change their perceptions of how students learn. Maybe the COPUS system could be used to support a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning study so faculty and departments can research how using active learning strategies impact student performance. It’s a little harder than just telling (or forcing) people to change their practice but, in the long run, it may confront both the perceptions and the reality of their work.