More striking data on traditional lecturing vs. active learning

Those who have participated in CELT’s series on active learning approaches this semester have seen some striking data that show big gains in learning when students are taught in ways fostering active learning, as compared with when they are taught through lectures. The director of the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, Charles Blaich, has blogged about an article that appeared in Science over the summer, showing more remarkable results. Have a look: Lecture versus active teaching redux.

The study compared both student engagement and test performance among groups who were taught physics by a “master lecturer” and by a less-experienced postdoc who used in-class questions and feedback to teach the same material.

Once again, we see interesting research into active learning being done in the hard sciences.

Why are scientists so active in this research, and humanities professors not? Is it because the sciences are so hard, that active learning is more necessary there? Or is it simply because scientists are more comfortable with designing and carrying out this sort of study?

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3 responses to “More striking data on traditional lecturing vs. active learning

  1. As much as I distrust generalizations, it does seem probable to me that faculty in the sciences are more accustomed to thinking in experiments: when they read around in their fields, they’re reading (I imagine) about other people’s experiments and carefully set-up studies; when humanities people read around, we’re usually reading arguments and interpretations. So while we all probably think of our students as metaphorical guinea pigs once in a while, and while we all probably test out some new approach on a given class day, it may be less habitual for instructors in the humanities actually to carry that metaphor further by actively setting up a pedagogical investigation and by actively quantifying the results of it later. But does that mean we’re necessarily less “experimental” in the broader sense of playing around with different instructional possibilities? I doubt the disciplinary divide explains too much of the variation among professors’ teaching styles.

  2. One reason the sciences have been actively researching this approach lately is that I feel (anecdotally) that the sciences have been a bit late to the party in the active learning discussion. Humanities have embraced reading and discussion of the material in student groups for quite some time. When I was in college twenty years ago, my humanities classes broke into groups or had discussion at least once a week, while my science classes consisted of going to lecture and dutifully writing down what the professor said while trying to stay awake. I sense that some of the furor is faculty (such as myself) trying active learning and being floored at the change in class dynamics and atmosphere. Because, truth be told, many of us don’t particularly *like* to lecture.

  3. Doesn’t everyone like to lecture? Don’t we all love the sounds of our own voices? I’m not convinced that active learning really second nature among humanities faculty. No, we never did sit in a circle in Quantum Mechanics (even though there were about eight students), but we didn’t do it all that often in American Literature Since 1865, either. Non-scientists have a lot to learn from scientists in this area, I wager. Maybe it just seems that the scientists are ahead here because working in small groups does seem like a big departure from standard science chalk-and-talk. I guess what I’m saying here is that I have no idea. I’ll stop wasting precious ones and zeroes now.