Active Learning: What is it good for?

I spent this week attending a Course Design Institute held by my university’s teaching and learning center. The workshop centered on creating a learner-centered syllabus and aligning course objectives, assessments and activities. I thought I’d share a few quick take-aways related to active learning.

First, the facilitator presented evidence from STEM fields on the value of active learning over lecture-based courses. In particular, I was struck by two studies.

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (Freeman et al). is a meta-analysis that reviewed 225 studies comparing student performance in undergraduate STEM courses. This is the stand-out quote from that piece:

“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” (Freeman et al 2014: 8413, emphasis added).

This meta-analysis also found evidence that active learning methods are particularly useful for underprepared and underrepresented students: “active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields” (Freeman et al 2014: 8413).

Learning Gains

Another finding came from Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses by Richard R. Hake. The figure I’ve pulled out here shows the learning gains in traditional, lecture courses (solid circles) compared to learning gains in courses that use interactive engagement techniques (unfilled circles). Two results stand out: first, even the least effective interactive classes showed gains as good as or better than the most effective traditional classes. Second, students with lower pre-test scores showed the biggest gains in the interactive classes (re-enforcing the Freeman et al finding discussed above).

Yet, despite this evidence-based value of active learning, my second take-away from the week is that active learning methods are most valuable when they support learning objectives and assessments. It’s tempting to find an active learning technique that I want to try and throw it into my course, but a “fun” activity for the sake of active learning is not useful if it doesn’t align with course learning objectives. We spent quite a bit of time this week talking about course design in the sense of aligning objective, assessments, and activities.

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