Hands-on teaching gains evidence but struggles with adoption

Research keeps affirming benefits of ‘active learning’ styles but faculty resistance persists, experts find

October 1, 2021
Teenage girl pulling stubborn dog
Source: iStock

US education experts are accumulating a growing array of proven strategies for getting students more deeply engaged in course material, yet remain frustrated by scholars’ reluctance to embrace them.

More than a dozen such experts, in a collection of assessments in Science magazine, describe numerous “active learning” styles shown to yield better results than traditional lecture-driven teaching.

Those approaches include hands-on and advanced virtual reality experiences that are more common at school level, and a heavy reliance on in-class projects and student-led discussion groups at the postsecondary stage.

The methods have been shown through research to work across various scientific and technical fields, with especially strong gains among students from low-income and racial minority backgrounds, the experts said.

“But as far as adoption is concerned,” said one of them, Louis Deslauriers, the director of science teaching and learning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, “that’s lagging far behind.”

It’s a reality that Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, professor of physics and education at Stanford University, has long been battling. Even getting universities to compile data on their teaching styles has been difficult, said Professor Wieman, who was not part of the Science package.

“This is a really big cultural change,” he said of the shift away from lecture-style formats. “When you look at how long it takes people to make big changes in cultural practices, like in medicine, it’s decades if not centuries; it’s not months and years.”

After sharing the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Professor Wieman began devoting his attention to finding ways of improving university science instruction.

He moved to Stanford in 2013 to pursue that goal. There, he said, he can walk down a hallway and quickly see the difference between a half-empty room of disengaged students looking at their phones and computers during a lecture, and a vibrant room full of students energetically working in groups with a teacher coaching them along.

But even at Stanford, those latter situations remain rare, Professor Wieman acknowledged. His assessments of their value instead often involve evaluating the outcomes of teaching modes he helped initiate in his previous positions at Colorado and the University of British Columbia.

At those two institutions and others, Professor Wieman said, before-and-after comparisons have shown improvements in areas that include student retention and grades.

Other authors in the Science package include Elli Theobald and Scott Freeman of the University of Washington at Seattle, whose data show that active learning methods boost all students, but are especially helpful in reducing disparities facing those from low-income or racial minority backgrounds.

Looking at the records of 44,000 students in 26 studies, the two Washington professors found that those disparities shrunk by 42 per cent on exam scores and by 76 per cent in passing rates, compared with non-minority students.

A study by Dr Deslauriers and his co-authors tried to show why such realities do not force changes in universities. It concluded that students underestimate the value they get from active-learning methods, because they tend to overvalue charismatic lecturing styles, and deliver that message in course evaluations. Professors have the same recollections, they argue, fuelling their determination to repeat that approach.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Register
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

As with the broader issues around flipped classrooms, a critical issue is student motivation - and its uneven distribution within our cohorts - especially in preparing before classes. Highly motivated students often report frustration with being held back by their less motivated classmates in various active learning endeavours.

Sponsored

Featured jobs