Report: Active Learning Best for Higher-Level STEM Instruction

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Posted By Marisa Sanfilippo on July 26, 2017 at 6:36 pm
Report: Active Learning Best for Higher-Level STEM Instruction

Research published by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that active learning methodologies are more effective in STEM education than the passive method of lectures accompanied by note taking. That’s generally no surprise, falling in line with other studies on exemplar and abstraction learners.

But what is surprising is what happens when students can change what they do. For example, the research shows failure rates decreased from 34 percent with passive lecturing to 22 percent with active learning instruction.

Active versus passive learning

Many techniques can be used to create an active learning environment. The ones most-often used facilitate the active processing and application of information in a variety of ways including interactive conversation, worksheet or lab exercises, group discussion, and group work.

Instructors are expected to design the exercises and then use student responses and scores to offer additional guidance for the student. In many ways, this is similar to the adaptive learning model that is rapidly gaining popularity.

Susan E. Ramlo, Ph.D., a STEM professor at the University of Akron, explains the differences between active and passive learning. Active learning encourages the student to become actively engaged in their personal learning process. Passive learning involves a professor providing knowledge passively in lecture format, which only allows the student to sit and receive.

The most significant problem with the passive learning model as it applies to STEM courses is initially students have preconceived notions about the subjects they are learning – many of which are false. Ramlo says, “Research has shown students must observe their misunderstandings first hand and confront them before they can accept the scientific concepts. An instructor explaining how things work is not sufficient to bring about conceptual change.”

Implementing active learning in STEM courses

One of the biggest problems associated with implementing active techniques is how alien it is to faculty. Lectures are scripted to a large degree, and professors know exactly what information they need to provide.

With learning techniques that give greater freedom to the student to improvise and come to conclusions on their own, there is a risk that students may miss critical information. Another issue is the uncertainty factor for students unaccustomed to the less formal class structure. They will submit faculty reviews at the end of such classes that reflect their displeasure in the experience.

Carl Wieman has been at the forefront of encouraging institutions to implement active learning in STEM classes. He is a professor of physics and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. In 2016, he delivered a talk to an audience at Washington University, Taking a Scientific Approach to Science and Engineering Education. There he presented decades of research that underscores the four primary components of active learning:

  • Motivation, meaning that an instructor’s presentation must be useful, relevant, and interesting to the learner and must also provide them with a belief that they have the ability to master the content.
  • Content must connect with prior thinking.
  • Instruction must apply current research on human memory, which shows the limitations of short-term memory and the best methods for long-term retention.
  • Instruction and student interaction must provide authentic and explicit practice in expert thinking.
  • Students must be given specific and timely feedback on their thought processes.

David Allison, author and manager of onsite programs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, recommends adding art to the curriculum of STEM programs. Additionally, he says, “Informal learning centers such as museums often have a multitude of programs and exhibits that engage all of the senses and use active learning techniques. The important thing to consider when integrating active learning in STEM courses is that the process engages the student.”

Ramlo explained how she changed her own teaching methods over time. She says, “It really started with changing the laboratory experiences to make them inquiry-based; then I started integrating group work. Now I have flipped all of my physics classes so that students watch videos or read the textbook outside of class so we can do active learning during the face-to-face class time.”

Benefits of active STEM instruction

Ramlo mentions several benefits she has witnessed since integrating active learning methodologies in her own classes. She notes she and the students are enjoying the learning experience. Another unexpected benefit is the way students who begin working collaboratively in her class continue to do so throughout their academic careers.

To successfully integrate active learning methodologies into the structure STEM education, it will be necessary to retrain students and faculty. Both will need to be fully vested in the process and have a greater level of confidence in the techniques.

Marisa Sanfilippo
Marisa is an award-winning marketing professional who loves to write. During the day, she wears her marketing hat in her marketing director role and at night she works as a freelance writer, ghost writing for clients and contributing to publications such as Huffington Post and Social Media Today.

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