In one of the largest metaanalysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date active learning has again been validated.
The evidence for using active, engaging techniques like group projects, using clickers to assess in-class learning, instant feedback/five minute papers, and similar tactics may help students meet learning objectives far better than lectures. Using evidence from 225 studies a research group led by Scott Freeman of the University of Washington found that students in traditional lecture-only courses were one-and-a-half times more likely to fail than were those in classes involving some form of active learning.
The studies used were focused on undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes at American universities.
This is no great shock to most educators, but it again underlines the need to translate research evidence into practice in education. The metaanalysis used studies done in regular classrooms so there is still work to be done in defining how active learning strategies like using instant feedback to gauge student responses, grouping students into content-focused workshops, and calling on individuals randomly translates to online courses.
The study suggests using an active learning approach improved students’ grades by about 6 percent, on average, and could even bump an individual student a full letter grade higher.
The study was published in PNAS.
Online teaching is a complex topic because there are so many aspects to cover– and many roles for online teachers to fill. Online teachers must grapple with evolving technologies that communicate information. They have to manage that information, gathering it for assessment and feedback but also producing the content and learning materials that students will use. Teachers are called on to be media mogul, director, editor, star, scriptwriter and special effects whiz. It’s a daunting set of tasks.
Why do it?
Online teaching is what teachers are doing, using the available technologies to reach students. Prior to the Internet, before television and radio, teachers could stand in a classroom and lead students through activities, lecture and guide students through readings and teach in the space provided. The space has changed. Digital information systems are available that link teachers and students in powerful ways and across the planet. It’s crucial that teacher use the best methods, tools and techniques to support the teaching process.
The good news is, the tools and systems are getting easier to use and navigate. First and second generation technologies that required teachers to be computer technologists are giving way to easier-to-use applications and systems. When the first automobiles were produced every driver had to also be a mechanic. Cars became more complex as the technology changed, but the infrastructures supporting personal transportation– service stations, highways, streetlights and the rest– all became easier and safer to use. Today, online teaching and learning systems are at the early 20th century level of car and driver technology. It’s still good to know your way around under the hood, and there aren’t any airbags yet, but it’s getting better.