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Education and Learning, Learning

Learning is an Active Process; Sitting in Lecture is Not

I distinctly remember sitting in a lecture hall listening to the professor talk. I firmly believed that I was learning. I even got home, and something from that class came up on TV, and I said, “I learned what that is today.” But, when someone asked me to explain it, I couldn’t. This is one of the big flaws with lectures, students sit there assuming that they are learning because everything makes sense when their teacher says it. In reality, the student hasn’t done any work yet to learn that material. They’ve been a passive recipient, which isn’t an effective way to learn.

Active learning involves things like answering questions, discussions, problem solving, working with case studies, creating projects, teaching others, and many other methods. They take time and energy. As a result, it can lead to the belief, from both teachers and students, that it isn’t as effective compared to lecturing.

There’s a lot of research to support that active learning approaches improve student learning and subsequent performance, but it isn’t that much, right? The effect is small enough that I can just go back to lecturing, right? Thanks to a Twitter thread that I can no longer find, I came across this quote:

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, p. 8413)

Think about that for a moment. If the study had been comparing different medical treatments, it might have been stopped because the effect of the treatment (active learning) was so obviously positive. In medicine, stopping trials occurs because of ethical reasons. It is unethical, in this case, to not give everyone access to the treatment. And yet many teachers, particularly faculty in post-secondary continue to lecture.

Freeman and colleagues (2014) did their research specifically in science, engineering, and mathematics. Given the ongoing concern about attrition, lack of diversity, and poor performance from this area of education, it isn’t surprising that most of the research focuses on these subject areas. I’d like to see more research into this from other fields. I know from my experience that having students do things themselves, with instructor support, has proven invaluable for student learning. But, I also know from experience that you need to prepare students for the active learning classroom. That means talking about what the approach is, why you are using it, and how it might impact how the students feel during class.

As a student, have you experienced active learning? What did you think of it at the time? As an instructor, have you tried using active learning strategies? How have they worked for you?

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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