Lecture v. Active Learning: You Don’t Have to Choose

So many faculty feel like they must choose a side in an ongoing debate over whether faculty should lecture or engage in active learning. Those who extensively use lecture defend it; those who use games, simulations, and other active tools try to eliminate it. This debate is at the heart of “Which is Better, Active Learning or Lecture? It’s Not So Simple“, a recent piece by Becky Supiano in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which cites a new study that critiques the well-documented finding that active learning leads to greater learning over lecture in STEM courses. I can imagine many will point to this article to dismiss arguments against the standard lecture in the classroom.

This entirely misses the point for two reasons.

First, it is reminiscent of how political scientists approach methodological debates, with quantitative and qualitative researchers going toe to toe over the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches. We let our skills and preferences govern us, when instead we should let the research question drive the choice of methods. Similarly, we should choose our teaching techniques based on our learning goals and the demand of the questions, concepts, cases, and other material that we are teaching. Just as we need to teach ourselves a new methodological skill to complete a research project, we may need to branch out to new teaching techniques to create an engaging, effective learning experience for students.

In practice, this means that sometimes lecture is a perfectly appropriate classroom methodology. When we need to have some direct information transmission, lecture is the obvious choice, and done well, can be incredibly effective. But if the goal is to have students engage in more critical thinking, perspective taking, debate, or develop skills like teamwork or communication, then more active techniques are called for. When the lesson outcomes or goals drive the choice, then any method is appropriate for the classroom and can be effective.

The second issue is that its entirely misleading to assume that lecture is passive and ‘active learning’, active. Lecture can be interactive and engaging. Incorporating a pause for reflection, a think-pair-share, case studies, short reflection exercises, interactive polling, or questions are all ways to make lectures more interactive. Elizabeth Barkley and Claire Major’s book, Interactive Lecturing, is a great source of tips on how to do this.

Likewise, so-called active learning techniques can, in practice, be quite passive and ineffective. I’ve seen poorly-facilitated simulations where only a few students have anything to do, with the rest completely checked out of the learning experience. Groupwork where one student dominates or all the students spend most of their time off-topic is meant to be active, but not succeeding in that goal. If your active learning exercises are poorly facilitated or not inclusive, then they are likely to fare poorly in studies of learning.

So what does this mean? Two takeaways. First, choose your teaching techniques based on what will lead to an effective learning experience and meet your goals for this specific set of students. Don’t engage in a false debate between ‘lecturing’ and ‘active learning’; instead, expand your toolbox so you are able to meet the needs of the learning environment.

Second, whatever technique you choose, do it and do it well. We’ve all seen brilliant lecturers and been put to sleep by others; we’ve also probably experienced an amazingly active class and one that makes us cringe with frustration. Yes, we know (still, despite this single new article) that active learning techniques, in general, are better for learning than lecture. But what we don’t know as much is how a really great, interactive lecture fares compared to different kinds of active learning. This is where I’d personally love to see more research being done. For now, though, commit to choosing your techniques thoughtfully, executing them to the best of your current ability, and in the long term expand your capabilities, and you will be fine.