Why active learning is more effective than traditional modes (opinion)

“The learning process is something you can incite—literally incite—like a riot.” —Audre Lorde

An often-referenced metastudy of more than 225 separate studies of learning found that, by every measure, active learning is more effective for every kind of student, in every discipline, than the traditional lecture mode or the question-and-answer guided discussion method . Indeed, the authors of the study, which was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesconcluding that had theirs been a pharmaceutical study, traditional learning would be taken off the market.

As Scott Freeman, the principal author, noted recently, “it’s not about the evidence anymore.” We know active learning works. We know it incites students to learn.

So what can we do to convince more instructors to actually support and use active learning? Over the past several years, we’ve been researching and interviewing faculty members around the world for our upcoming book on teaching and learning, The New College Classroom. And a number of those faculty have asked us how they can best explain the merits of active learning to colleagues and administrators—and even to students and their parents— who continue to be resistant to it. Here are 10 principles, or convincing arguments, that we’ve shared with them.

  1. Active learning is rigorous. As Nobel Prize–winning physicist Carl Wieman notes in his (very rigorous) Improving How Universities Teach Science (Harvard University Press, 2017), active learning doesn’t just quiz students on the content we teach them. It also affords them the actual strategic learning tools and research methods to dig deeply and to learn better answers for themselves in the classroom and beyond. A follow-up PNAS study showed that students learn and retain demonstrably more in active learning classes (even when they don’t think they do).
  2. Active learning is empowering. You can encourage active learning by offering clickers in large lectures, using the flipped classroom model, or through more participatory methods, such as having students write or revise the class’s learning outcomes or contribute topics or ideas to a traditional syllabus. The key component is having students take responsibility for their own learning.
  3. Active learning is effective, accessible and equitable. When we redesign the classroom for every student’s success, we model a more just, democratic, liberatory society and give each student tools to excel. Active learning is accessible and effective for every student and can “reduce or eliminate achievement gaps,” in the words of the PNAS study. It’s especially impactful for students who come from poor educational backgrounds and are suddenly facing college-level work with little prior methodological research training.
  4. “Activity” is not a bad word. The word “activity” can sound to college profs like elementary school. Yet learning requires more than just hearing a lecture or reading a textbook. It requires pursuing knowledge through independent exploration, explaining a concept to someone else or applying a newly acquired skill or method in another context. When students are actively learning together, they are more engaged and learn how to transfer knowledge from the classroom to their lives, careers and communities. The instructor gets a bonus, too: orchestrating an effective learning activity requires your attention and engagement but not more preparation.
  5. Think-pair-share works everywhere. In a think-pair-share activity, participants take a minute or two (not more) to think about the answer to a question you pose and jot out a quick answer. Then they pair up with someone nearby and takes turns reading their answers out loud to one another. Finally, after discussing their individual ideas with their partner, they synthesize their ideas and share with the larger class. Engaging everyone results in far more diverse, imaginative responses than calling on the same few “good students” who always raise their hands. We always have think-pair-share in our back pockets, and we use it every time a classroom—or a meeting, for that matter—falls silent or goes off track.
  6. Every lesson is two lessons. Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is our friend. Guiding students to reflect on not just what they have learned but also how they have learned it doubles the impact. You just need to take five minutes at the end of each class to ask students what they learned that they could use in the future. Metacognition adds an exacting step to the learning process that makes lessons stick, shows students what may be applicable in other contexts and gives them the tools they need to be self-driven.
  7. Learning in college is for the world beyond. We often get so caught up in our specializations and disciplines that we forget that we should be teaching higher-order thinking skills that students can apply throughout their lives: proficiencies in collaboration, project management, synthesis and generalization from examples, and so on. Employers insist these are the prized skills they seek in new employees.
  8. Everything is a teachable moment. When a lesson falls flat, ask students what they would do instead. An exit ticket is a good method at that juncture: in the last five minutes of a class, ask students to write down their favorite activity of the term and what made it memorable, to propose a new method for the next class or even volunteer to lead (alone or with other students) part of that next class. Collect their answers, learn from them and use them.
  9. We are all co-learners. Or we should be. Presumably, we all got into this profession because we believe it is crucially important to be able to learn, at any age, from any experience and from anyone. When we are open to learning with and from our students, we model the best ideals for higher education.
  10. Nothing will change until faculty incentives do. Until we change our academic reward structures for hiring and promotion, faculty members have no reason to take valuable time out from writing monographs or refereed papers to rethink their role in the classroom. We cannot incite students to learn without inciting—and incentivizing—their instructors first so they will invest in understanding and applying active learning. We’ve already made the case for why such an educational approach is vitally important, so we now say simply to top administrators: let’s do it!

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