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Why college students do better when the teacher stops lecturing

New students sit during their first law lecture in an audiroium at the law department of Potsdam University in Potsdam, Germany, 14 October 2013.
New students sit during their first law lecture in an audiroium at the law department of Potsdam University in Potsdam, Germany, 14 October 2013.
Ralf Hirschberger, Associated Press

When 700 biology students sit down in Scott Freeman’s stadium-style lecture hall at the University of Washington, they don’t lean back. They stay on their toes.

They often work in small groups doing worksheets as teaching assistants move through the aisles answering questions. If Freeman does lecture, he punctuates it with electronic clicker quizzes and small group discussions followed by questions posed to randomly chosen students.

Freeman takes teaching seriously because that is what he does. If that sounds obvious, it’s not.

Unlike his research faculty colleagues — whose main career rewards come from research and working with graduate students — Freeman’s career hinges on effective teaching. When he does research, it’s to learn how to teach better.

What Freeman and his colleagues found in a major study recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is that college students who learn actively rather than listening to lectures are far more likely to succeed in class.

Freeman and his colleagues reviewed 225 teaching effectiveness studies in science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM fields. They found that when students learned actively, failure rates dropped from 34 percent to 22 percent — a 55 percent improvement. And on average, exam grades increased 6 percentage points, or about half a letter grade.

Freeman says that he still has conversations with colleagues who are resisting changing their teaching style and remain skeptical about the data. He hopes this study ends that.

“The data are eye-popping,” Freeman said. “We want this to function like the surgeon general’s report on tobacco,” referring to the 1964 statement that effectively ended debate over cigarettes and cancer.

Freeman is not overstating his findings, says Malcolm Campbell, a biology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

“If Freeman’s study had been a medical drug trial,” Campbell said, “it would have been stopped in the middle because the effect was so clear it would have been unethical to continue.”

Asking questions

With the White House pushing for more STEM majors and graduates to meet growing demand for tech-heavy jobs, Campbell sees active learning in the college STEM classroom as a means to get more students to embrace fields they would otherwise shun.

Campbell tells of a student at Davidson College who loved biology but took a traditional lecture course his freshman year and nearly dropped the major. Then he took a nontraditional class and realized that the boring rote learning of his lecture course is actually the antithesis of science. Today, Campbell said, that student is completing a Ph.D. in biology at U.C. Berkeley.

College biology teaching, Campbell said, has “almost become a foreign language with a dash of religion, where you are just supposed to believe what the teacher says."

Campbell tells of another student who recently graduated in biology at Davidson.

“When he was in high school, his biology teacher asked him to stop asking questions because it was confusing the other students,” Campbell said.

After taking Campbell’s introduction to biology, the student was thrilled to learn not only that questions were OK, but also that he would be encouraged to interpret data rather than just memorize facts.

“That’s what a scientist does,” Campbell said. “So if we want people to stay in STEM and have thinkers, people who can troubleshoot, then if memorization is their experience we are actually selecting against the people who could thrive in the discipline.”

“What the study tells us is that 12 percent of the students who take a science, engineering or math course are going to fail but wouldn’t fail if different teaching methods were used,” said Carl Wieman.

Second generation

But the effects of active learning are probably much larger than the study shows, Wieman said, as the study was not really able to distinguish the real active learning classrooms from poorly conceived gestures in that direction.

“That was just the average across a whole bunch of different studies,” Wieman said.

The range of “active” learning in the 226 studies is vast, Freeman said. “There are some where you break the lecture once or twice with an exercise, while others are extremely intensive, where there is no lecture at all.

“We found active learning studies where students did worse,” Freeman said. “They are rare, but they exist. And we found others where active learning moves grades a full letter or more. There is an incredible variation.”

This study, Freeman freely admits, is “crude.”

The next step, he argues, is “second-generation research” that uses educational psychology and cognitive science to build and test ideas about how active learning can be best employed in various subjects or student populations.

The next step, he suggests, is to dig more deeply into the various approaches and see where the greatest gains were made.

Freeman has a pile of questions that still need answers. “What is it about active learning that works? Is more always better? Which techniques are best for which setting? Does what works in calculus work equally well in geology?”

Next steps

Lecture-style teaching is “the pedagogical equivalent of blood letting,” says Wieman, a Stanford physics professor, who also teaches in Stanford’s graduate school of education. And yet it continues.

“It doesn’t matter how wonderfully we know how to teach if people aren’t doing it for whatever reason,” Wieman said.

Higher education, on the whole, has remained remarkably resistant both to changes in scientific understanding of learning and the market dynamics stemming from skyrocketing tuition and debt.

“People are talking about it more, but higher education isn’t really responding,” Wieman said. “You can’t make an informed judgment about where you will get the best higher education.”

What we need now, Wieman argues, is better data about how various colleges are teaching STEM classes. “We know that active learning works better,” he says, “but we really need to push the institutions to make that data available so students and parents can make better choices."