UCD Graduate Teaching Community: Week 1 – Active Learning

This spring I am participating in the Graduate Teaching Community (GTC) at UC Davis. This is an informal group that meets weekly to discuss an array of topics related to teaching. Each participant leads one meeting per quarter and then summarizes that meeting for the GTC blog. I led the first meeting and wrote up the following summary. You can see the original here.

This quarter, the Graduate Teaching Community decided to shift weekly discussions to a journal-club format, in which we read and discuss a peer-reviewed paper relating to college teaching each week. Our topic this week was active learning and the discussion was based on a review, “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research” (1). While the review is now a decade old, it is worth reading, as it presumes limited familiarity with education research on the part of the audience, making it more accessible to non-specialists. Our discussion of the paper had two main phases – we talked about overall challenges in interpreting educational studies and then went over active learning, collaborative learning, and problem based learning.

Challenges in interpreting the educational literature
The biggest pitfall facing non-specialists reading the education literature is probably the temptation to over-generalize results. To avoid this, it is important to carefully assess both the teaching methodology used and the measured outputs. The importance of this is evident when looking at the active learning literature – a wide range of techniques fall under the banner of active learning and researchers have assessed their impact on everything from test scores to student attrition to attitudes towards school.

Active learning
Active learning can be broadly defined as any student-centric activity that is incorporated into a traditional lecture that has the effect of breaking up the passive transmission of information from teacher to student. Examples include giving students a minute to review notes with a neighbor, “think-pair-share,” i-clickers, and group problem-solving. These approaches are thought to be beneficial because they serve to reset student attention spans and, if done well, help students engage more deeply with the material. While many studies have shown benefits from active learning, the wide variety of approaches that fall under this umbrella mean that you should look for technique-specific studies before making a decision about implementing a particular flavor of active learning.

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning
Collaborative learning methods are approaches where students work in groups, either in class, or outside of class. Cooperative learning is a specific type of collaborative learning, where students are graded based on both group and individual performance. An example of cooperative learning could be a group presentation where students work together to prepare the talk and are then graded, a least in part, on their individual performances. Both approaches have been shown to improve grades, reduce attrition, and improve student attitudes. An important consideration with group work is that many students have never been taught how to work effectively in groups, so be sure to provide guidance on how you want the groups to function.

Problem-based learning (PBL)
Problem-based learning encompasses a wide-variety of approaches where learning activities, lessons, or entire courses are designed around solving a real-world problem. Examples of PBL could include an ecology lecture that introduces concepts through the prism of a conservation problem at a particular park, an accounting assignment that teaches tax concepts via working through a tax return, or a molecular biology lab course where students spend the semester cloning and characterizing a particular gene. Due to the wide array of PBL methods, the data on their efficacy is somewhat mixed, however the most consistent finding is that student attitudes towards the course are better when PBL is used.

Based on our discussion, it is clear that active learning approaches are something that all college teachers should consider incorporating into their classes. Indeed, efforts to expand use of active learning in large lecture courses are underway at UC Davis (2). If you want to read more about the research on active learning that has been done since this review was published, I recommend taking a look at recent a meta-analysis of over 200 active learning studies (3).

1. Prince, Michael. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Engineering Education, 2004.
2. Perez-Pena, Richard. “Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science.” New York Times, 2014.
3. Freeman et al. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Math.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2014.


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