As part of his recent visit to Lake Area Technical College, the President announced the Department of Education’s new $60 million First in the World (FITW) grant competition to drive innovation in higher education. A key element in the competition is a priority for improving teaching and learning in college. One of the innovative teaching strategies included was encouraging schools to move beyond the traditional lecture format of instruction with more active learning approaches. This is an important step forward in meeting the President’s goal to prepare 1 million college STEM graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
There’s a Better Way
If there’s a better way, do it. That principle guides many of us. When antibiotics were shown to cure infections, doctors started prescribing them. When it became clear that seatbelts save lives, drivers started using them. And when a new piece of technology appears that is faster, smaller, easier, or snazzier than its predecessor, we line up to buy it. We have evidence that there’s also a better way to educate college students in STEM than through exclusively lecture-based courses. How? Two words…active learning.
Research shows that actively engaging students in thinking, questioning, and solving real-world problems substantially increases student persistence in STEM and improves learning. Few conclusions are as well-supported in the field of education. Studies from as far back as the 1940s and in thousands since then show that any active method of teaching STEM subjects is better than a purely passive alternative. A 2013 meta-analysis of over 150 studies shows that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 50% more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning. From major interventions such as engaging students in designing and conducting experiments, to tiny tweaks such as asking students to write down a question before or during a lecture, a wide range of active learning practices can enhance learning and build critical thinking skills. In fact, some educators even think that poorly delivered lectures can induce more learning than well-delivered ones because the confusion resulting from a bad lecture causes an active process – students have to work figure things out rather than simply letting a polished presentation wash over them. Although perhaps not an advisable practice, the concept of the bad lecture as a learning tool is certainly startling food for thought.
Changing the Game
How can we help STEM educators broadly adopt active learning? Since teachers typically teach STEM the way it was taught to them, it’s important to make sure that today’s college students are taught STEM using active methods so that those students can become a new generation of instructors – in both K-12 and college classrooms -- who use active learning. Teachers at all levels also need information and training in the use of active learning. Many teachers aren’t aware of the benefits of active learning, and if they are, they may be overwhelmed by the thought of wading through the education literature to find out what works or by the task of redesigning their courses. Overcoming these hurdles isn’t that complicated, and requires progress in just a few key areas: (1) elevating and celebrating the effectiveness of active learning; (2) providing basic training in active learning to teachers at all levels; and (3) giving teachers ready access to examples of active learning in their respective disciplines.
This is why it is so exciting to see active learning included in the recent Department of Education announcement of the $60 million First in the World grant competition. The announcement recognizes that:
“…methods of teaching have stayed largely static, with the traditional lecture as the core instructional design. New approaches to teaching and learning, such as tools and strategies that go beyond the traditional lecture to support active learning, and that actively engage learners or customize learning, must be tested and expanded to more postsecondary institutions…”
With a goal of improving student outcomes today while also building a stronger evidence base about what works to help shape teaching strategies for the future, FITW will help achieve needed progress in areas such as active learning in order to improve teaching, learning, and student outcomes across colleges and universities in the United States. That’s good news for our Nation’s students…and, indeed, for our Nation.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Meredith Drosback is Assistant Director for Education and Physical Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.