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55% More STEM Students Fail Lectures Than Active Learning Classes

Definition of Lecture
Please note that for purposes of this research, the term "lecture" is used in a limited sense. According to the researchers: "Following [Donald A. Bligh, author of What's the Use of Lectures?], we defined traditional lecturing as '... continuous exposition by the teacher.' Under this definition, student activity was assumed to be limited to taking notes and/or asking occasional and unprompted questions of the instructor."

Thus, a "lecture-based course" that contains active learning components is not to be implicated along with lectures that do not incorporate an active learning component.

Traditional lectures are failing students in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). According to a new meta-analysis published this week, a staggering 55 percent more students flunk purely lecture-based STEM courses than flunk courses taught with some sort of active learning component.

Active learning — in which students are engaged with their learning through discussion, reflection, collaboration or other types of activities that involve more than just passive listening and notetaking — has long been held up as a model for instruction that has significant potential for improving student outcomes, with several studies pointing to benefits like improved test scores and improved performance on papers, coupled with improved retention (fewer dropouts) — particularly in STEM disciplines.

In the last decade or so, technology has played an increasingly significant role in the implementation of active learning across college and university campuses — impacting teaching practices and even the physical layout of classrooms — and has involved everything from furnishings, equipment and classroom AV to learning software and even social media. In fact, just in the last month, another study was released suggesting that something as simple as a Facebook group can play a meaningful role in engaging students and producing measurable, significant gains in student achievement.

This latest meta-analysis — "Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics," published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — is being billed as the "largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of the undergraduate STEM education literature to date." Led by the University of Washington's Scott Freeman, a principal lecturer in biology, it examined 250 previously published studies on STEM education and found that, on the whole, more than a third of students taking STEM lectures that contain no active learning component fail (mean failure rate of 33.8 percent), while the failure rate for classes incorporating active learning (including lectures that incorporate active learning) was 21.8 percent — a 12-point, or 55 percent difference in mean failure rates.

Those results are consistent across all STEM disciplines "in all class sizes, course types and course levels," according to the report.

Further, in classes involving active learning, student outcomes were significantly stronger. "Students performing in the 50th percentile of a class based on traditional lecturing would, under active learning, move to the 68th percentile of that class — meaning that instead of scoring better than 50 percent of the students in the class, the same individual taught with active learning would score better than 68 percent of the students being lectured to," according to the report. "According to an analysis of examination scores in three introductory STEM courses,... a change of 0.47 SDs would produce an increase of about 6 percent in average examination scores and would translate to a 0.3 point increase in average final grade. On a letter-based system, medians in the courses analyzed would rise from a B− to a B or from a B to a B+."

The academic benefits were particularly pronounced in smaller classes, according to the researchers.

The results have significant implications. Just among the study population of 29,300 students who attended lectures, there were more than 9,900 failures. With active learning, that number would have decreased by more than 3,500, amounting to more than $3.5 million in "saved tuition." On a broader scale, according to the researchers, "increased grades and fewer failures should make a significant impact on the pipeline problem. For example, the 2012 President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report calls for an additional 1 million STEM majors in the United States in the next decade — requiring a 33 percent increase from the current annual total — and notes that simply increasing the current STEM retention rate of 40 percent to 50 percent would meet three-quarters of that goal."

Further, the National Science Foundation also weighed in on the meta-analysis, pointing out that the failure rate of STEM lectures could impact as many as 840,000 students. "If the failure rates of 34 percent for lecturing and 22 percent in classes with some active learning were applied to the 7 million U.S. undergraduates who say they want to pursue STEM majors, some 2.38 million students would fail lecture-style courses [versus] 1.54 million with active learning. That's 840,000 additional students failing under lecturing, a difference of 55 percent compared to the failure rate of active learning."

The complete study is freely available via pnas.org.


About the Author

David Nagel is edtorial director, education for 1105 Media's Public Sector Media Group. A 22-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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