Study: Students feel they learn more from lecture…but don’t.

Everyone should check out this important study by Deslauriers et al, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and currently open access. It outlines an experiment at Harvard that tested direct learning in an introductory physics class compared to indirect reports of learning. The takeaway is that students reported they learned more during the lecture—but performed better on quizzes taken following active learning sessions. This has tremendous implications for how we do active learning research–and shows the dangers of relying on student reports of how they learn.

In the experiment, students attended 11 weeks of the introductory course together, and then in the 12th week were randomly assigned to two groups–one with an instructor giving a compelling lecture, and the other with a instructor running a session using active learning techniques. The instructors were both well versed in active learning approaches and had experience in giving great lectures. Students took a survey afterward reporting on their learning along with a 12 question quiz on the material (created by a different instructor to prevent teaching to the test). In the following session the instructors changed their method, so each set of students experienced both a lecture session and an active learning session. The material in the lecture and active learning sessions was identical, as was the handout. In the lecture, the instructor worked through slides based on the handout and solved problems with students passively observing and filling in the answers, while in the active learning session students worked in small groups to solve the same set of problems with the instructor offering assistance as needed. As the authors say “students in both groups received the exact same information from the handouts and the instructor, and only active engagement with the material was toggled on and off” (2).

Students reported greater frustration with the more disjointed nature of the active learning exercise, and thought they learned better from the flow of the lectures, but the researchers found that students performed better on the quiz instrument on the material in their active learning sessions.

We’ve often noted when reviewing research on active learning techniques that indirect measures of learning–that is, student reports on their learning–are not ideal, but this study shows us one of the dangers of relying on such instruments. Less than stellar support by students can derail efforts to increase active learning in a particular institution. We need to be more cautious, then, in how we examine and evaluate evidence that supports–or opposes–the use of active learning in the classroom.