What works in higher education: active learning

university-105709_640When I advocate for pedagogical research (an area in which I try to maintain an active interest), I am often told by colleagues that the quality of the research is poor. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate what actually works in higher education and so there is no real impetus to change what we already do. Indeed, I remember one academic colleague squeaking through a teaching qualification by the skin of their teeth because they steadfastly refused to cite any pedagogical literature. I wanted to write a quick post to make the case that this is not always true.

Specifically, the article I want to mention is this one:

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Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – a highly reputable journal in which many of my colleagues would be delighted to publish their work – the paper describes a review of an approach known as “active learning“. This method is very simple: students should be actively engaged in the learning process rather than being a passive audience. From the article:

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. The analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.

The authors compared 158 active learning studies to 67 traditional lecturing studies to find these rather startling effects. Unsurprisingly, those studies that used a typical lecturing style had significantly greater failure rates. This likely stems from the student’s lack of evaluation of their own learning during the course, which is only revealed when the exam marks are returned at the end of teaching. Through active learning, students gain a greater appreciation of their progress through a continued self-reflection on progress made. Similarly, the increase in performance is not surprising: students who have errors in their understanding discover those errors and can take steps to remedy them when engaged in an active learning environment.

So why aren’t we all doing active learning? The simple answer is that active learning requires an investment of time and a different perspective on teaching. Most university lecturers have never actually been trained as teachers, and their only experience of teaching was the old-fashioned exposition style of didactic lecturing. They are doing what they know. Workloads are at such a level that retraining and refocusing efforts on new ways of teaching is occurring piecemeal, rather than through large-scale redesign of teaching based on empirically validated methods.

So what is the solution?

For me, there has to be a community of practice that allows academics to help one another to enhance teaching. Since teaching in higher education tends to be relatively siloed into modules, academics often develop their own teaching style with relatively little input from colleagues. A greater awareness of best practice and learning from one another could bring about considerable enhancements, with support and guidance (and, sometimes, copying wholesale if appropriate!) in the implementation of new techniques. I’d be interested to hear whether anybody has found a solution to this problem and any interesting case studies where the transition from exposition to active learning has been achieved successfully. Feel free to drop a note in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “What works in higher education: active learning

  1. Completely agree! So much so, I presented a session at our academic school away day last week on active learning in lectures! Think it was well received but want to do an analysis to determine how many academics do some form of active learning in their lectures.

    • Great! I agree that one of the issues is knowing where these little pockets of good practice exist when we all do our own thing…

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