Should we adopt more active learning at the expense of cutting the STEM curriculum?

A few things have been troubling me recently. Do I teach too much stuff? Is teaching on my course too didactic? Am I over-reliant on knowledge transfer and passive learning? Do my students forget everything they have learnt on the course once they have sat their written formal exams? Are my students’ BSc/MSc marks not reflective of their ability/knowledge/skills at graduation? I’m going to go with the answer of ‘probably not’, just for now, despite negative comments about what is my preferred teaching style.

I have discussed a couple of major studies on active learning vs. passive learning in STEM subjects in my blog here and here. Despite these rather critical post-publication peer reviews, I am certainly not against what are described as ‘active learning’ approaches. The MSc course that I run has no more than 30% of the marks awarded from formal written exam based around ‘scientific lecture content’. This is very low for the sector, so on the face of it not overly traditional. There is extensive problem-based learning, laboratory work, lab-reports, group assignments, presentations and written essays, professional skills and project work, much of which consolidates learning of lecture content. However for the ‘formal taught scientific content’ parts, I do still tend to give 2 hour lecture sessions, where I am talking for anything up to 80% of the time. When I am not talking, I am encouraging some active learning by asking questions, a bit of peer-instruction here and there, debating, doing the odd quiz, getting students to answer questions embedded in the lecture notes and sometimes testing prior knowledge before I have even started talking. Typically I upload all lecture materials and support reading prior to sessions onto the VLE so students don’t arrive ‘cold’, and can attempt some activities prior to the session. These ‘active learning’ activities within the formal lectures do seem (anecdotally I admit) to encourage learning within the session, and also highlight to me misconceptions due absence of required prior knowledge, or just things that I just haven’t explained very well.

So if these ‘active learning’ sessions are so useful in my lectures, why not do the full 2 hour session using this manner? Flipped classroom teaching has been proposed by some, whereby lectures are pre-recorded and watch prior to the session, leaving the full lecture time free for discussion. Others propose discovery learning and problem-based learning, which promotes deeper understanding than passive learning. For me, the problem with 100% ‘active learning’ approaches comes down to content. Yes, there is lots of it in Bioscience, and the lecture is efficient in this regard. However within STEM subjects, I am slightly troubled by the end-point of many discussions whereby the proposal is to decrease content in favour of depth of learning. It’s not that my students’ answers in exams are superficial. The best of them already give very deep, reasoned, well-though-out answers that are at times really testing the tutors’ own knowledge. I really don’t see broad superficial learning from those at the top. However follow any educational conference or L&T Twitter discussion and you will perpetually hear the following negative remarks:

‘the answer (for active learning approaches) in many cases is to cut out huge swathes of contentNarrative: Too much content

‘try cutting out stuff and everyone suddenly has a vested interest’ Narrative: Too much content, much irrelevant

‘reduce content as this will promote deeper approaches’ Narrative: Too much content, specialise in fewer areas

‘Handing out lecture notes = admitting there is a problem with the lecture’ Narrative: too much content to remember in lecture session

‘if you believe that lecturing is simply the transfer of information then you will soon be out of a job’ Narrative: Lectures (and lecturers) are rubbish

All of these comments are from discussions of active learning and technology-enhanced learning approaches over more traditional approaches. Probably the most concerning is the notion that these active learning approaches are ‘better’ when we need to cut out vast amounts of content for them to be properly implemented. If 100% active learning approaches cannot deliver the required content to the same learning outcomes, then is it necessarily ‘better’ than a predominantly traditional-based or mixed active-traditional approach, or just different? Do we need to amend the learning outcomes to make the method of delivery ‘fit’?

Let’s put it another way. If my manager asked me to cut out half of the content from my course to make it ‘easier’ for some weak international students to get a ‘deeper understanding’ of specific topic areas, I’d consider this to be dumbing down, and rightly so. Recent events at Anglia Ruskin highlight the potential for falling foul of the QAA on precisely this matter. This case highlights the importance of tightly adhering to validated learning outcomes of nothing else. If I did the same, and reduced half of my content but used 100% active learning approaches throughout all of my sessions as the reason, I’d probably get promoted into the faculty L&T team for it. And there lies a problem.

So, the question is: Do we deliver too much ‘taught scientific content’ in STEM? If we don’t, then deliver all sessions by whatever methods work well for you, be it 100% active learning, traditional lecture, or in my preference of a lecture with some active learning ‘nuggets’, and continue to assess to the same standards as existing courses at similar institutions. If we do genuinely deliver too much content, then cut it down, and fully justify that decision based on comparisons with similar established courses at similar institutions. However cuts to an existing course curriculum should not be for the sole reason that it doesn’t fit with our new preferred pedagogy.

One last point: Here is a top tip for Edubloggers



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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5 Responses to Should we adopt more active learning at the expense of cutting the STEM curriculum?

  1. Anna Wood says:

    Interesting thoughts. There are a number of ideas here I’d like to pick up on.

    I think that the focus on reducing the content is somewhat of a red herring. What active learning proponants noramlly mean is ‘reduce the factual content, but increase the level of skill’. When thought of like this, it is not dumbing down, but changing/adapting to the new needs and expectations of students/higher education/employers. Rather than covering vaste swathses of factual content, which students are expected to memorise, we instead focus on their ability to apply this knowledge beyond the specific questions set by the university exams. Other skills have entered the curriculum, from teamworking/discussion to scientific skills of evaluating data, planning experiements, researching, to skills associted with life-long learning. This, together with the inevitable ‘curriculum creep’ means that re-evaluating the amount of stuff in the curriculum is always necessary. We should also question why it is there, and does it really neeed to be. The skills to learn new content when required may be of more value. For example when I had to teach digital electronics, a subject that was not covered in detail by my undergraduate physics degree, to some engineers, I had the skills to learn what I needed to know. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t covered in the curriculum.

    It seems that, reading between the lines, one problem you have with reducing the content is that the best students already do very well, so there is no need to reduce the content. The idea of active learning is that more students are given the chance to achieve at the highest level (by changing the balance from content towards skills).

    The issue of increasing student diversity, however, is a real one. And one that active learning can only partially solve. However, it can be hugely beneficial for weaker students to work with their peers, getting the change to practice and have feedback. It also benefits the stronger students, who have to deepen their knowledge by explaining to others. Problem solving and inquiry based learning gives more freedom allowing the stronger students to go into a topic in more depth.

    For me, there needs to be a balance between skills and content. And active learning is a great way to achieve that.

    • TheOtherDrX says:

      Some interesting points made, all of which I can see where you are coming from.
      The focus on factual content is quite a relevant one, as the pressure to erode it away in response to outside pressures is immense. What I am seeing in some sectors, both STEM, but also non-STEM subjects is the removal of content to the level that the academic award of a degree in X is becoming, for a substantial part, a degree in professional skills and employability. You mention curriculum creep presumably in the context of an ever-expanding curriculum. I only see an ever shrinking course title-related curriculum, largely driven by central university changes to regulations on module size and numbers of modules, numbers of assessments per module. The end result of this is that students know less ‘stuff’ and are given fewer opportunities to apply and consolidate knowledge gained through assessed CW, which is where I think they probably learn the most if it is well designed. None of this is answering the point of the role of active learning in taught sessions, but when it comes to cutting content, this is an existing competing interest that is unrelated to arguments around the teaching methods.

      You mention increasing the level of ‘skill’ in replacement for the lost content. I am certainly not advocating lectures of facts for recall in the exam, far from it. You make the statement in context of skills ‘beyond the specific questions set by the University exams’. I may be misinterpreting this, but if all the university exams are assessing is memorising content, then it is surely how that method is applied that is at fault, rather than the teaching delivery method. As I stated in the blog, only 30% of the marks contributing to my MSc/BSc degree classification come from formal written exams. When looking at the content of those exams, straight lecture content recall is rarely the key point, certainly not in any of my modules. Seen questions with open-ended answers that engage with published literature beyond the level of the lectures, questions analysing a ‘seen’ scientific paper with unseen analytical & conceptual understanding questions. Questions that can only be answered fully with understanding of central concepts from the lectures. And then maybe just a third of the exam assessing a wide breadth of theoretical concepts/knowledge from across the module. This clarity on how I assess skills under exam conditions (in addition to the other 70% of the course) may address your point about my best students already doing very well. They really are excellent, but also the weaker students, whilst not being able to regurgitate all that many facts from my lectures, can do that all important science graduate skill: dissect a scientific paper, on their own, using skills gained in tutorials. They read, analyse, understand central hypothesis, show whether or not data supports hypothesis, explain scientific basis of methods used, explain data analysis used inc. statistics all under exam conditions, and all but the weakest take answers beyond the level of the lecture.

      Back to active learning in the taught sessions, what I think a large part of the argument boils down to is whether students should be learning most or all of the more limited content in the formal taught sessions using an active approach, or whether they should be doing much of the learning outside of (after?) the traditional-style class. If most or all learning is in the class setting, there is the potential for the weaker students in particular to be ‘spoon-fed’ a more limited curriculum with little independence. Combine this with the arguments that to accommodate a 100% active learning approach we MUST cut content is a concern for me, given the existing competing interests to cut stuff out, and given the amount of stand-alone time already dedicated to skills. Whereas an in-class active approach may allow more of the weaker students to achieve higher, is this at the expense of the cohort as a whole by delivery of a more limited curriculum? Not sure if any studies really address this point.

  2. Ross Galloway says:

    Interesting discussion. On the topic of ‘cutting content’ versus ‘active learning’, in my fully-flipped modules, I haven’t cut any content at all *from the module* (if anything, the amount of content has crept up slightly over the last couple of years) but I have cut quite a bit of content *from my lectures* (I still call them ‘lectures’, even though they are not didactic lectures any more). I feel confident in doing this since I believe the lectures better equip the students to successfully learn the remaining content under their own steam. I always make it very clear to the students that there is content in the module (notes and problems) which we will not directly address in class but nevertheless is still ‘fair game’ (i.e. I have examined it). So far it seems to have worked out OK! So there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy there, I don’t think.

    • TheOtherDrX says:

      I agree, there is nothing more annoying than a false dichotomy in education debate. The scenario you describe where content not discussed in detail is still ‘fair game’ seems logical. Its reassuring that flipping allows comparable content to be covered in depth, as the initial reason for the blog was a series of comments where the suggestion was that to implement flipping or problem/enquiry-based learning, we had to cut content to make the chosen pedagogy work, which seems the wrong way round to me. Cutting might be the correct course if the curriculum is very broad and superficial in terms of student learning (i.e. recall only) in favour of a more analytical approach. However 100% active, or traditional with active learning activities should be able to cover a similar up-to-date curriculum with similar valid assessment strategies.

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