Engaged teaching and learning: Ready, set, action!

[En español]

When I first signed up for formal training in best teaching practices from UCSD’s Center for Engaged Teaching, I thought I would learn good techniques for imparting knowledge to students. What I actually learned about was how to help students build their own knowledge, particularly through incorporating active learning in the classroom. Here are some things I learned along the way—both from the scientific literature on how people learn and from my own experience.

Active learning works: the scientific evidence

The traditional college class is probably familiar. It’s set in a large lecture hall, perhaps with auditorium-style seating. A professor stands at the front of the class and transmits information to the students (who might or might not be paying attention). Typically, the transfer of information flows in a single direction, from teacher to student. In a very real sense, the classroom is organized around the teacher.

This so-called “transmissionist” model can be contrasted with models in which students are individually responsible for helping to construct their own knowledge—“constructivist” models of education. In this type of classroom, students are invited to be a part of the conversation and to take an active role in their learning during class time. The classroom is organized around the engaged learner, not the teacher. In this student-centered classroom, much of the focus is on active, rather than passive, learning. Implementing active learning strategies can be simple—like asking students to think about the answer to a question or to explain a concept to a classmate—or more complex, like group projects that take place over the course of a semester. Because active learning unfolds in real time in the classroom, it also allow professors (or peers) to provide timely feedback to students.



A traditional college lecture hall (left) vs. a classroom configured for in-class group work (right). Image sources: Flickr (left and right).

These strategies might sound like good ways to keep students from snoozing in class, but is there any scientific evidence that they work? Or, as Scott Freeman and colleagues [1; p. 8410] put it, when it comes to the college classroom, “[S]hould we ask or should we tell?”

To answer this question, Freeman and colleague conducted a rigorous meta-analysis of 225 studies that compared student performance in traditional, lecture-based classrooms vs. classrooms that employed some form of active learning [2]. Student performance was measured in two ways: (1) performance on assessments of learning and (2) course failure rate. Assessments of learning included both course exams and formal measures called concept inventories, which are designed to measure level of knowledge in a specific content area (e.g., physics or biology).

Freeman and colleagues found that students in classrooms that used active learning scored about 6% higher on exams than peers enrolled in traditional lecture-style classes. Gains were even stronger for concept inventories. Failure rates for classes that used active learning were also 1.5 times lower than those of traditional lecture-based classes. What’s more, these results were consistent across different instructors and across the different disciplines studied (physics, biology, math, computer science, etc.). The researchers point out that these effects are so large that, had they been studying effects of a drug on patient outcome using a randomized controlled trial design, the study would likely have been stopped so that all patients (and not just those randomly assigned to the drug) could benefit. Put another way: might it constitute educational malpractice not to use active learning?

In a commentary on Freeman and colleagues’ findings, Carl Wieman [3] points out that, given these results, the question is no longer whether college instructors should use active learning, but which forms of active learning techniques work best in which circumstances. For example, using “clicker” technology, a teacher can quickly poll a large classroom with a multiple-choice question to determine whether most students understand a concept (and therefore whether to spend more time on the material). Clickers might work best for assessing whether students understand basic concepts, but they probably have less utility in promoting (or assessing) more complex thinking.

Active learning: my own experience

This summer I taught a class on language in UCSD’s cognitive science department, where I’m a PhD candidate. After two quarters of training in pedagogy from UCSD’s Center for Engaged Teaching and with some new terminology in my pocket (peer instruction, anyone?), I was ready and raring to go.

During our first class, after reviewing my expectations for the course (as detailed on the syllabus), I asked students to brainstorm their own expectations. Students came up with some great responses, including the notion that they could and should ask for help when needed. At the break, a student approached me to ask for a way to provide anonymous feedback (for those students who might not feel comfortable speaking up in front of the whole class). It probably sounds as corny as it feels, but I was humbled by the fact that students were willing to be vulnerable and ask for what they needed. It was a great way to start off the term.


Snapshot of the blackboard as students brainstormed their expectations for the course.

Armed with the knowledge that active learning often seems to equal greater learning, I made it a goal to incorporate multiple forms of active learning into every (three-hour!) class. I found that one simple but effective way to get students engaged was to use web-based technology to poll students or ask questions about the lecture in real time. Students could optionally answer using laptops or cell phones. For example, I used PollEverywhere.com to ask students to generate answers to a question and then to visualize their answers (in real time) as a word cloud.

An even more powerful method was to scaffold questions. First, students were asked to think about the answer to a question on their own and then polled using web-based technology. Next, students tried to convince another classmate that their own answer was the right one. Finally, when they were polled again, students had often converged on the correct answer after having discussed it amongst their peers (peer instruction at work!).

Technology aside, I found that simply taking just a bit of time out of class to ask students to think went a long way. Asking students to contemplate what they already knew about a topic, or to discuss a topic with a partner, meant they were making connections between their existing knowledge and new material. In my (limited) experience, this resulted in more thoughtful classroom interactions compared to asking students questions about new material without connecting it to their existing knowledge. And emphasizing these connections between new and existing knowledge is at the core of what active learning is all about.

Teaching an entire course during a five-week summer session required great feats of strength both from the students and from me, but meeting twice a week for three hours a pop did foster a sense of community that might be rarer in a typical quarter- or semester-long course. As a new disciple of active learning, I intentionally did a lot of reflecting during those five short weeks (and in the weeks that have followed). What surprised me most was how, in trying to understand where students might be coming from, I started to think differently as a teacher. I started to think about myself as a conversation starter, about the classroom as a place where a conversation could happen. And I found myself learning much more from that conversation than I could have imagined.

References and Notes

  1. Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 111(23), 8410-8415.
  2. Freeman and colleagues limited their investigation to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classrooms, noting that the Obama administration had called for an increase in bachelor’s degrees in these fields.
  3. Wieman, C.E. (2014). Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 111(23), 8319-8320.