Active learning is becoming more popular as evidence consistently shows that students achieve superior academic outcomes when taught using this method. Active learning involves creating an interactive, engaging learning environment where students are active participants as opposed to passive listeners, as they often are in traditional lectures.
While it is generally acknowledged that active learning produces quality outcomes, many academics have been reluctant to take on the technique. In some part, this is because redesigning a course is extremely time consuming.
This article by Miller, McNear and Metz investigates the engaging lecture, a traditional lecture broken up by short activities where students participate in or practice the content being taught. It allows for active learning to be incorporated into a course without the need for the academic to completely redesign the course. It works.
The researchers incorporated engaging lectures into a physiology course for dentistry students, resulting in an increase in both student engagement and performance. While students’ grades increased across the board when taught this way, grades increased more in the final exam than in mid-term exams. This suggests that this learning method may be particularly useful in helping students retain knowledge and concepts in the long run.
Active learning can be effectively incorporated into academic courses without the course being entirely redesigned.
Students involved in the study participated in a physiology course with several modules, approximately half taught using traditional lecture and the remainder with the engaging lecture. This allowed the researchers to compare results from the different modules.
In addition to using students’ grades, students were surveyed throughout the semester, using clickers to indicate how effective they thought a class was and answer other questions. Comments from end of semester course evaluations were also used to provide context and explanation for some findings.
Students achieved 8% higher grades in tests throughout the semester on modules taught with the engaging lecture. In the end of semester exam, they performed 23% higher in these modules, suggesting the engaging lecture was particularly effective in helping them retain the material over a longer time frame.
Students reported being distracted less often in an engaging lecture, and perceived the lectures to be more effective. Interestingly, the engaging lecture style did not encourage students to spend more time studying outside of class. This indicates that the improvements in grades can be attributed to different teaching technique, as opposed to students just becoming more engaged and studying harder.
The researchers tackle another common reason academics provide for not embracing active learning: that active learning takes more class time and does not allow for as much content to be covered. They question whether this is a valid issue, as it is based on the idea that “obtaining content is more important than grasping concepts”. In the twenty first century where facts and information are only a few clicks away, comprehension is becoming a critical skill. Adopting active learning is an important aspect of training our students for a modern world.
I imagine if the researchers were to summarise this research at a BBQ, they would say something along the lines of “No more excuses! You know active learning works – just do it!”
What is an engaging lecture?
The researchers stopped their traditional lecture approximately every ten minutes to include an interactive activity for their students. These included;
- Problem sets
- Brainstorming sessions
- Matching terminology and definitions
- Classifying components of the topic
- Comparing and contrasting material
Activities ranged in length from 1 to 20 minutes long. After each activity, the lecturer would call on a student (using random selection, such as the student with the most writing instruments on their desk, or the last student to arrive) to share their findings with the class.
Title: A comparison of traditional and engaging lecture methods in a large, professional-level course
Authors: Cynthia J. Miller, Jacquee McNear, and Michael J. Metz
Published: Advances in Physiology Education, 37: 347–355, 2013