Is there a place for lecture in engaged learning?

written by admin on September 16, 2014 in Engaged Learning with no comments

by Peter Felten

A recent scholarly analysis comparing student outcomes in lecture and “active learning” courses has re-energized debates about whether lecture is an effective, or even an ethical, teaching method in higher education.

In May 2014 Scott Freeman and colleagues published the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis to date comparing lecturing to active learning in undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. This research demonstrates that courses using active learning significantly increased student exam scores and significantly decreased student failure rates when compared to lecture-based classes.  The authors conclude: “Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millennium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist ‘ask, don’t tell’ approach may lead to strong increases in student performance” (p. 4).

Influential voices in STEM education have used Freeman’s article to argue against the lecture continuing to be the primary method of teaching. A short article in Science, for instance, quotes Eric Mazur: “This is a really important article—the impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.” Mazur concludes that this meta-analysis presents “an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.”

A close reading of the meta-analysis, however, suggests we should not necessarily walk away from all lecturing. Freeman and his colleagues do not compare classes that are exclusively lecture with those that use only active learning techniques. Instead, they contrast “courses with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing” (p. 1; my emphasis). The bar to be included in the “active learning” data set, in other words, was quite low.

That’s great news for faculty who would like to improve student outcomes but who are (perhaps reasonably) cautious about a major overhaul of their teaching. Even a relatively small amount of active learning can yield strongly positive results for students. We may not need a pedagogical revolution to enhance student learning. Small but significant changes might be sufficient.

But how much active learning is enough?

In a commentary on the Freeman article, Nobel Prize-winning physicist tackled that question. Weiman writes: “One promising direction emerging in [Freeman et al.] is that ‘more is better.’ The highest impacts are observed in studies where a larger fraction of the class time was devoted to active learning.  Those high impact studies would suggest that it is reasonable to aspire to teaching that consistently achieves twice the average improvements reported in [Freeman et al.], e.g., failure rates of only ~10% and increases in learning of 1–1.5 SDs. Such improvements in STEM educational outcomes would have major national implications” (my emphasis).

While “more is better,” the quality of active learning also is significant. Prather and colleagues, for instance, studied learning in introductory astronomy courses at 31 institutions. In 2009 they concluded that simply adding an active learning component to a lecture course does not automatically produce better learning; instead, “the proper implementation of interactive learning strategies…is key to achieving higher gains in student learning.” This finding is not surprising. Higher education research consistently demonstrates that what students do matters (here is just one example of this research). If students are doing meaningful academic work, they are more likely to learn than if they are not being challenged – regardless of whether they are passively listening to lectures or actively participating in superficial class activities.

What should we do in response to this research?

Those of us who study student learning and development should think carefully about how we conduct our research. Both Freeman et al. and Weiman argue against using lecture-only courses as comparison groups in educational studies. Weiman notes that medical researchers no longer consider the efficacy of a new antibiotic by contrasting its outcomes with bloodletting. Why do some educational researchers continue to use lecture as the gold standard?

Weiman also argues that departments and institutions must respond: “This meta-analysis makes a powerful case that any college or university that is teaching its STEM courses by traditional lectures is providing an inferior education to its students. One hopes that it will inspire administrators to start paying attention to the teaching methods being used in their classrooms—monitoring them and establishing accountability for using active learning methods, something that is currently not done.”

And, perhaps most importantly, teaching faculty should work intentionally toward making their courses more active in educationally purposeful ways. Freeman et al. does not mean that the lecture should be completely abandoned; there is a “time for telling” (to quote a classic study by Schwartz and Bransford). However, lecture should no longer be the foundation upon which our courses are constructed. Active learning should be at the core.


Peter Felten is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and associate professor of history.