Active vs. passive learning in STEM: Is a little better than a lot?

Lecturers who lecture have been getting a lot of stick recently for their ‘sage on the stage’, didactic, boring lectures. I have even heard it said that the brain is more active when asleep compared to in lectures (maybe that’s just my lectures), however I have yet to find convincing evidence in the published literature. Certainly the students who sleep through my lectures don’t learn much. So when Freeman et al (2014) published their study “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”, I read it with great interest. It is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, a peer-reviewed journal that all scientists respect as one of the leading journals in science, not some free, online, non-peer-reviewed education journal that would publish a shopping list if the authors would pay the publication charges. Given the source journal, this is something that all lecturers in STEM, even those that wouldn’t touch an Edu Journal, should carefully read.

So, what does the paper claim? The paper is a meta-analysis, so looked at 255 previous studies on active vs. passive learning, and combined the results. The study shows that across the STEM disciplines, results improved by 0.47 standard deviations, and the chances of failing were roughly halved when active learning approaches were used. Active learning worked across all class sizes, but worked better in smaller classes of 90% passive learning (didactic lectures) representing the passive group. I really don’t want to criticize so early but isn’t this a bit of a false dichotomy?
So, >10% active learning is better than <10% active learning. I accept that the data supports this conclusion, and it fits well with observations of my own teaching where student understanding 'seems better' where I employ some degree of active learning vs. a 2 hour didactic lecture. I am not surprised by this finding and would encourage all lecturers to not just rely on a monologue. However does this mean that we should ditch the lecture? Well, no, as that is not what the data says.
If active learning should entirely replace passive learning, then we should observe a quantitative increase in attainment with increasing proportion of active learning up to 100% active. The authors state that "we were not able to evaluate the relationship between intensity (or type) of active learning and student performance due to lack of data", which I find surprising since they had the % of active learning, and the effect size for each study. Maybe they just couldn't show a linear response or the clear significance that they expected… In analyzing outliers with high effect sizes, the percent of active learning was 25%, 33% and 100%. I find it difficult to comprehend how the data could not be plotted to show the effect size vs. % active learning. I suspect that there was no clear link between 10% and 100% active learning and outcomes. Or to put it another way, 100% passive is probably worse than anywhere between 0% and 90% passive, but not necessarily correct that 100% active learning results in better outcomes than, say, 50:50 active:passive. This is just me reading between the lines, but there is a gaping hole in the data analysis required to be sure of the conclusion that active learning should represent the 'empirically validated teaching method'. This is not sufficient evidence to ditch the lecture (yet) but us certainly strong evidence for further studies teasing out the quantitative effect of increasing student engagement within lecture-type sessions to give optimal outcomes.

There are other commentaries that discuss other aspects, or weaknesses of this study. Major concerns include whether active learning results in better attainment, or the possibility that teachers who employ active learning become more enthusiastic. Is it the method, or the delivery? Furthermore, the file drawer effect could still at play here. Although effect sizes were symmetrical on funnel plots, there could easily be an absence of either neutral or pro-passive studies. Even if I had such data, I'd probably find it harder to publish a pro-passive learning study than a pro-active learning study.

So in summary, the data says that 100% passive learning is worse than <90% passive. Or to put it another way, some active learning is better than none. Whether this means that the highly efficient lecture should be abandoned in STEM far from certain, and there are mechanisms to introduce active elements into lectures. What is fairly certain is any mechanism that can engage students during a lecture is probably worth doing.

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About TheOtherDrX

Senior Lecturer in Biosciences. MSc Biosciences course leader and lecturer on topics such as Cell Biology, Moleular Pathology and Genetics. I manage a research team of PhD students and post-doctoral scientists working on novel anti-tumour drug combinations, nanotech-based delivery of anti-tumour agents, and artificial scaffolds for 3D cell culture studies as a replacement for animal-based studies. I also do a bit of STEM public engagement work with my Geiger counter.
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3 Responses to Active vs. passive learning in STEM: Is a little better than a lot?

  1. Pingback: Comments on Deslauriers “Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class”. | TheOtherDrX's Higher Education blog

  2. Pingback: Should we adopt more active learning at the expense of cutting the STEM curriculum? | TheOtherDrX's Higher Education blog

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