Research on how people learn shows that teaching using active learning is more effective than just lecturing. Students in STEM courses where instructors use active learning do better on exams and tests specifically designed to measure conceptual understanding. Students in active learning courses are also less likely to fail or withdraw. This is especially true for students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in STEM subjects or who are first in their families to go to college.
What is active learning?
Active learning is when the instructor stops talking and students make progress toward a learning objective by actively doing something such as working on a problem in a small group or using “clickers” to answer a conceptual question.
There is an abundance of research on the effectiveness of active learning - two recent meta-analyses published in highly respected journals show this:
- Freeman and colleagues (2014) analyzed 225 STEM education studies and found that students in active learning courses perform better on exams, show greater gains in conceptual understanding, and are less likely to fail or withdraw.
- Ruiz-Primo and colleagues (2011) analyzed 310 STEM education studies and found positive effects across STEM disciplines.
This site is designed to point out practical, evidence-based resources for teaching using active learning. Please email any feedback or suggestions for other topics to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How does it work?
To be effective, instruction must:
- Actively involve students in a learning task
- Aim for an outcome or objective
- Provide structure and opportunities for practice
- Offer opportunities for feedback
- Encourage interaction and reflection
- Expect higher level thinking, not just recall
- Be informed with evidence of student learning and development, and
- Include well-motivated and well-timed explanations from reading or mini-lectures.
See these references for more details: How People Learn; Discipline-Based Education Research; We must teach more effectively: here are four ways to get started; Reaching Students.
What does it look like?
- Because students are actively engaging in learning course material by thinking, writing, talking, and reflecting, active learning classrooms will be visibly active and noisy.
- Students are likely to be facing one another or the whole class, discussing how they are approaching a problem or their rationale for selecting a particular solution.
- The instructor is likely to be moving around the classroom – checking on students’ progress, listening to their ideas, and giving them feedback both verbally and by modeling how to go about solving a problem or asking students to model problem solving for one another.
- Students will be practicing what they will be expected to do to be successful on exams or other assessments.
The following are repositories of high quality undergraduate STEM education materials and guidance:
- Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College
- Center for Teaching Guides at Vanderbilt University
- Inside Mathematics from The Charles A. Dana Center at UT Austin
Interested in studies of active learning in your discipline? Check out these articles:
|Research on active learning||Research on active learning|
|Astronomy||Math & Statistics|
|Biology||Oceanography & Geosciences|