Active Learning: If You Fall Asleep in Class, Research Says it Might Not Be Your Fault
by Christian Perticone - Friday, May 23rd, 2014 Uncategorized

Judges lecture criminals at the time of sentencing. Bosses lecture employees on the importance of customer service. Mothers lecture small children to clean behind their ears. Many joyous experiences, it seems, occur as lectures. To this list we might add, Biology professors lecture students on the intricacies of molecular carbon bonds.

Is it any wonder that Biology Professor Scott Freedman of the University of Washington wants to do away with lecturing in STEM subject area classes? Freedman is the lead author in a recent paper, Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. The study is a meta-analysis of 225 studies that report on the scores and failure rates of STEM students in both traditional lecture-based classes and active learning classrooms. All who would like to see an increase in the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees completed per year, including The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, should take note of Freedman’s findings:

“The studies analyzed here document that active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning.” (Freedman et al. page 1).

This news isn’t just noteworthy for the big boys in DC. All future college students, and their parents, should investigate the teaching methods employed by STEM departments at their schools of choice. If a student has a better chance at graduating with a STEM degree, regardless of the name at the top of that degree, she stands to have a fruitful and fulfilling career. As Cindy Perman reports in her recent CNBC article, The Best (and Worst) Jobs of 2014, “Nine out of 10 of the best jobs fell into the STEM career category (science, technology, engineering and math), with the “numbers guys,” in particular, locking in 3 of the top 4 spots.” In other words, if your desired college outcome is success and security, attend a college or university that emphasizes active learning techniques in its STEM classrooms.

How, you may wonder, can you identify these magical active learning classrooms? Look for teachers who ask questions and wait for answers. Find teachers who embrace interactive technology, from lecture hall clickers, to social media platforms. Case studies, debates, simulations, group projects, and presentations are all aspects of active learning. These methods of teaching can and do occur in massive lecture halls – if there is no one lecturing.

On the other hand, avoid genius researchers who would rather be in a lab or library than in front of a class. Top universities covet these types, but undergraduates should not. Learning doesn’t happen when you are passively receiving information from a teacher who speaks and shows you pictures for the entire class period. Learning occurs when you wrestle with real scenarios and discuss your problem-solving process. Demand more engaging teachers; there is evidence backing you up.

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