Research on Effectiveness (sic) of Lecturing

paper (pdf below) published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports a meta-analysis of some 250 studies of effectiveness of lecturing vs. various forms of “active learning” in STEM fields. Upshot is that active learning is associated with 6% improvement in exam scores and that lectures yield a 50% increase in likelihood of failing the course. Interestingly the effect was stronger in classes under 50.

From the National Science Foundation
Press Release 14-064
Enough with the lecturing

May 12, 2014
A significantly greater number of students fail science, engineering and math courses that are taught lecture-style than fail in classes incorporating so-called active learning that expects them to participate in discussions and problem-solving beyond what they’ve memorized.

Active learning also improves exam performance in some cases enough to change grades by half a letter or more–so a B-plus, for example, becomes an A-minus.

Those findings are from the largest and most comprehensive analysis ever published of studies comparing lecturing to active learning in undergraduate education, said Scott Freeman, a University of Washington principal lecturer in biology. He’s lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 12.

Freeman and his co-authors based their findings on 225 studies of undergraduate education across all of the “STEM” areas: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many of the studies analyzed were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The researchers found that 55 percent more students fail lecture-based courses than classes with at least some active learning. Two previous studies looked only at subsets of the STEM areas and none before considered failure rates.

On average across all the studies, a little more than one-third of students in traditional lecture classes failed–that is, they either withdrew or got Fs or Ds, which generally means they were ineligible to take more advanced courses. On average with active learning, a little more than one-fifth of students failed.

“If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning, according to our analysis,” Freeman said. “There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we’re talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out every year.”

This could go a long way toward meeting national calls like the one from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) saying the U.S. needs a million more STEM majors in the future, Freeman said.

“Freeman’s study reinforces the conclusion of PCAST [President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] that widespread implementation of these evidence-based practices will increase retention and persistence in STEM fields and further supports the findings of the National Research Council’s Discipline-based Education Research report, funded by NSF,” said Susan Singer who leads NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

It is encouraging news as NSF convenes an interagency team to implement the undergraduate goals of the Federal STEM Education 5-year Strategic Plan. One of the four goals is to “Identify and broaden implementation of evidence-based instructional practices and innovations to improve undergraduate learning and retention in STEM and develop national architecture to improve empirical understanding of how these changes relate to key student outcomes.”

Attempts by college faculty to use active learning, long popular in K-12 classrooms, started taking off in the mid-1990s, Freeman said, though lecturing still dominates.

“We’ve got to stop killing student performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help them think like scientists,” he said.

For the paper, more than 640 studies comparing traditional lecturing with some kind of active learning were examined by Freeman, Wenderoth and their other co-authors, Sarah Eddy, Miles McDonough, Nnadozie Okoroafor and Hannah Jordt, all with the UW biology department, and Michelle Smith with the University of Maine, whose research was funded by NSF. The studies, conducted at four-year and community colleges mainly in the U.S., appeared in STEM education journals, databases, dissertations and conference proceedings.

Some 225 of those studies met the standards to be included in the analysis including: assurances the groups of students being compared were equally qualified and able, instructors or groups of instructors were the same, and exams given to measure performance were either exactly alike or used questions pulled from the same pool of questions each time.

The data were considered using meta-analysis, an approach long used in fields such as biomedicine to determine the effectiveness of a treatment based on studies with a variety of patient groups, providers and ways of administering the therapy or drugs.

Regarding grade improvement, the findings showed improvements on exams increased an average of 6 percent, which might raise students half a grade, for example from a B+ to an A-.

If the failure rates of 34 percent for lecturing and 22 percent in classes with some active learning were applied to the 7 million U.S. undergraduates who say they want to pursue STEM majors, some 2.38 million students would fail lecture-style courses vs. 1.54 million with active learning. That’s 840,000 additional students failing under lecturing, a difference of 55 percent compared to the failure rate of active learning.

“That 840,000 students is a large portion of the million additional STEM majors the president’s council called for,” Freeman said.


Active learning improves grades, reduces failure among undergrads in STEM

See Also
Bajak, Aleszu. “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds.” Science Insider

Another Buzzword or The Holy Grail: Knowledge Transfer

The basic idea – generalizing from something learned in one context and applying it in another – seems sound, if a tad obvious. But is this a case of over-complicating/over-analyzing something as a means of achieving enhanced prestige, importance, and budget-line in the face of evolving irrelevance?

Problem Based Science Education at UMass

See Also

MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory “Problem Based Learning“(bibliography)
Taylor, Peter and Anne Fausto-Sterling.  “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A Problem-Based Learning Experiment” (MIT Open Courseware Course)

Is "Flipping the Classroom" New? What’s Good About It?

In this post on Tomorrow’s ProfessorMarilla Svinicki, University of Texas at Austin, asks “Flipped Classrooms— Old or New?” She describes the technique, notes its roots in conventional practices, and suggests three concrete benefits.

Flipped Classrooms— Old or New?

“So is flipping the classroom a new or old teaching strategy? The principles are old and valuable, but they haven’t been usable because of constraints of time and effort on the parts of both students and teacher. It is the possibility of implementing these key principles that is new, and often enabled by technology’s ability to capture their essence. Now we have to reframe the mindsets of both instructor and student about the role of face-to-face class time. Is it a time to receive information or to use it? I vote for the latter. That would be the new part. “

There has been a lot of buzz in higher education lately about the flipped classroom model for teaching and learning….

Perhaps the most important assumption of the flipped classroom … is the idea that learning is strongest when the learner is actively involved in the creation of understanding and the application of understanding to real problems….

Is it a new technique? Not really. Instructors have been assigning readings and asking questions in class for a long time. But the quality of work students can do and the ability to monitor the students’ actual outside of class learning has been greatly enhanced through technology….

Which leads us to the second idea of the flipped classroom – coming to the learning with a prepared mind. This idea derives from the principle of learning that having a preview of what is to be learned before attempting to use it makes for a much deeper level of organization in which to insert (or attempt to insert) new ideas and concepts….

One last benefit of the flipped class design is that instructor expertise is used in ways that are most valuable….

Another "What We Know about Teaching and Learning" Sampler

Kathleen McKinney is a sociologist who focuses on the “scholarship of teaching and learning” in sociology.  These lists are not earth-shattering or paradigm-busting (some are even “obvious” … once you read them), but I find them to be good reminders of how to get the basics right.