College teaching has undergone a revolution in recent years. Traditional styles of teaching and lecturing have been supplanted by a more interactive, student-centered approach known as “active learning.” In active learning classrooms, students practice skills, receive feedback from teachers, and then get a chance to implement teachers’ corrections as soon as they are given. While the benefits of active learning for liberal arts fields seem fairly intuitive, it is less obvious whether this approach can be successful in more technical and scientific fields where “knowledge” is seen as more concrete, universal, and fact-based. To find out whether active learning is beneficial in STEM classes, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted a metaanalysis of 225 studies comparing the outcomes of different teaching methods.
Freeman’s team found that undergraduates enrolled in STEM lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who took courses with elements of active learning. Students in active learning sections got higher exam scores (by 6%) and their vocabulary scores rose. The results held across STEM disciplines class sizes, although the greatest benefits were seen in classes with fewer than 50 students.
Carl Wieman, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, is among a group of experts who also believe that active learning is the most effective instruction style for STEM. In an interview with Anna Kuchment for Scientific American, Wieman states that active learning works because it teaches students to think like scientists in the field, moving from background reading to applied work with targeted feedback and revision. In other words, active learning is a direct application of what cognitive psychology tells us about how we learn: by practicing, with feedback from an expert about what we’re doing right and wrong and how to get better.
Wieman believes that if future elementary and high school STEM teachers are taught with active learning, they could, in turn, potentially develop a much higher level of content mastery among their students. Wieman says, “[K-12 students] really require more subject expertise from the instructor than a lecture,” and these teachers will be better able to pass expertise on to their students.
Finally, better teaching and learning is expected to help attract and retain undergraduates in STEM majors. Because STEM degrees continue to be in high demand among employers, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has now set a goal of increasing the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded each year by 33%. Adopting empirically validated teaching practices like active learning may be the best bet for meeting this objective while improving K-12 STEM education to boot.