Out of Control

Some comments on a recent study of active learning published in the journal PLOS One — “Knowing is half the battle” by Shaw et al. The study reports on data gathered in an introductory biology course that was taught with active learning techniques from 2013 to 2016. Post-course scores on a concept and skill inventory were significantly higher than pre-course scores, which the authors take as an indication that students learned. Inventory scores from traditionally-taught iterations of the course are not reported. Without a control group, we have no idea whether the new pedagogy is more effective at generating desired learning outcomes than the old one. This is the typical flaw in research on active learning.

But there is a silver lining to this study. The researchers also measured student perceptions. Over time, students increasingly attributed their learning to course structure and pedagogy. Student course evaluations usually correlate with grades, but in this case, grades did not significantly change from year to year. So it appears that students’ expectations about the course eventually aligned more closely with how the course was taught.

This points to a phenomenon that I have noticed anecdotally: if you suddenly adopt an active learning pedagogy, prepare to be criticized initially by students, especially if all the other instructors that students encounter continue to teach in a traditional way.

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