Coming to college, a lot of students are overwhelmed by the idea of large lectures. Some students go as far as to say that going to lectures are a waste of time, and they can just teach themselves. But what is it that makes lectures “a waste of time”? Is it because students aren’t putting in enough effort, or are lectures just setting a student up for failure?
An article from Science Magazine is claiming that “Lectures aren’t just boring, they’re ineffective too,” according to a study. Scott Freeman, a biologist from the University of Washington, Seattle challenged the “predominant form of teaching” that has been used since 1050 in Europe (Source 1). Seeing that Freeman was a biologist, I was wondering why the effects of active learning were of interest to him. Doing some research on Freeman, I discovered that he and his colleagues in the Biology department are doing this research in order to improve the quality of teaching of science courses, like the ones they teach.
Freeman and a group of colleagues performed a meta-analysis, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This meta-analysis tested “the hypothesis that lecturing maximizes learning and course performance” through 225 studies (Source 2). These studies reported data on failure rates and exam scores in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, under traditional lecturing versus active learning. Since there have been so many studies done to investigate how lecturing effects a student’s success rate, it is obvious that comparing all of these study’s results would be the best way to form a conclusion. The large number of studies being analyzed also adds to the validity of Freeman’s conclusion and shows that this is of interest to many researchers. They are drawing analyses from a multitude of sources, but, on the other hand, they are focused around STEM courses, which could affect the results a bit. Maybe there is a difference in lecturing in language or history courses, versus the STEM courses. Since Freeman is a lecturer in Biology, looking into language and history courses might not be of interest. Although this is a factor to consider, STEM courses do cover four different types of classes, so there is a variety to a certain extent. The conclusion made here can only be related to courses that fall under the STEM category.
Freeman and his team meta-analyzed 225 studies, which documented student performance, based off of it being an active learning class or traditional lecture, but the active learning classes “varied widely in intensity and implementation” (Source 2). They focused on the class sessions, and did not consider homework assignments, or labs during analysis. I believe that the different degrees of active learning in class have an impact on how well a student will do, in addition to the types of homework and labs a student must do. Without taking these two factors into consideration, the results might not be entirely accurate. Looking at the kinds of homework and labs given and the types of active learning would add another level to the study and make it more credible. Looking at SC 200, we do have the texting polls, which make the class participate and be active, but I would consider the course more of a traditional lecture than an active learning class. Difference in opinion on what qualifies as a lecture or an active learning class really does decide the outcome of this study.
Although this analysis fails to consider homework, labs, and uniformity of active learning, they are seen as credible because they “followed guidelines for best practice for quantitative reviews (SI Materials and Methods).” In this study, there were two outcome (dependent) variables that are as follows:
- scores on identical or formally equivalent examinations, concept inventories, or other assessments;
- failure rates, usually measured as a percentage of students receiving a D or F grade or withdrawing from course in question (DFW rate)
These dependent variables were used to form data and an eventual conclusion.
So, what did they find out from looking at all these studies done? Freeman found an overall mean to assess the differences between lecture sessions and active learning sessions. He concluded, “on average, students in traditional lecture courses are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in courses with active learning” (Source 2). In addition, they found “that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections” (Source 2). The results “support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms” (Source 2). Overall, the research rejected the null hypothesis, and failed to reject the alternative, which is that lectures do not help.
Are Freeman’s observations a fluke? Are these stats completely credible? Like many other studies, there are a multitude of factors that go into what is being observed. It is hard to make a conclusion on active learning courses and lecture courses while people may have different views on what qualifies as each. Besides this factor, the study proves to be very credible. A large number of studies were being meta-analyzed, from four different course types (STEM courses). As Andrew has told us in class, meta-analyses guards against false positives, which happens 5% of the time.
A concern from this meta-analysis however, is that the researchers could have chosen to ignore the studies that failed to reject the null hypothesis, which is an example of the file-drawer problem.
To see if this could be an issue skewing Freemans results, I found another study that evaluates the effectiveness of active learning classes. A review of research done by Michael Prince at Bucknell University “examines the evidence for the effectiveness of active learning” since he has “found that there is a broad but uneven support for the core elements of active, collaborative, cooperative and problem-based learning” (Source 3). This study does a very good job at recognizing the problem that there is not a “universally accepted” definition for active learning, since it can be interpreted differently. Prince defines the vocabulary he uses within the paper and also recognizes common problems with interpreting active learning. This is a very important step in making the study accurate and understandable. The review lists evidence for active learning from numerous research studies. A study that stuck out to be very convincing was a done by Ruhl, who implemented the pause procedure in his lecture. The study involved “72 students over two coursers in each of two semesters,” and the researchers examined the effects of stopping the 45 minute class three times with two minute breaks so students could work in pairs to clarify notes (Source 3). Another group was being examined which were taught with straight lecture and tested their short and long-term retention of the material. In the end, they found that test scores were 89.4 with the pause procedure, and 72.6 with no pause in the other group. This is a significant difference in exam scores, which makes it seem like active learning and implementing student activity into a lecture greatly benefits a student.
These are just two studies showing the effects of active learning on a student, and there are hundreds more out there. These studies prove to be accurate and to show a convincing conclusion. As always, these studies could have been effected by chance and could have been a fluke, but since there are so many studies proving the same thing, it seems like active learning helps a students learning, while lectures give students a larger chance to fail. It is also important to consider the effects of the file drawer problem in these studies. Since Freeman’s study failed to reject the null hypothesis, there could have been studies not published, and therefore not equally representing all the possible results for this kind of study. In order to know for sure that lectures are ineffective, the file-drawer problem must be identified as a problem and solved.