Active Learning Literature

Limitations of traditional lectures as a primary pedagogical tool in teaching science are widely recognized. Unfortunately, this class format prevails as the most common approach to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at the post-secondary level. STEM courses should afford the opportunity to practice critical thinking and high-order cognition, help students integrate knowledge into conceptual frameworks, guide them in linking prior learning to new knowledge, and aid them in developing problem solving skills that promote the application of concepts.

However, these goals are rarely realized for the majority of students in traditional lectures (National Research Council, [NRC] 2000; McCray et al. 2003; Honan 2002; Knight 2004; Freeman et al. 2011). For most students, lecturing promotes memorization of facts rather than fostering deep understanding (Wright et al. 1998; Loverude et al. 2002), and even high academic achievers sometimes gain little understanding of basic science concepts through traditional didactic lectures (Sundberg 2002).

To remedy this situation, clarion calls for reform of standard lecture delivery by incorporating active learning (AL) in the classroom have been forwarded by august science education advisory bodies and science education researchers (Froyd, 2007; Nielsen, 2011; NRC 2000, 2003; National Science Foundation 1996; The Boyer Commission, 1998; Bonwell and Eisen, 1991; Cerbin 2012; Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education 2011; Handelsman et al. 2004).

Indeed, there is a broad empirical fundament that supports the use of AL in science classrooms (e.g., reviewed by Handelsman et al. 2007; Prince 2004; Knight 2004; Allen and Tanner 2005; Freeman, et al. 2014). Specific examples of the benefits of AL in undergraduate biology education include:

  1. The observation that substituting daily and weekly practice in problem-solving, data analysis, and other higher-order cognitive skills for lecture-intensive course design improved the performance of all students and reduced the achievement gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students (Haak et al. 2011; Freeman, et al. 2014);
  2. The finding that an intense, inquiry-based, learner-centered experience was associated with long-term improvements in academic performance (Derting and Ebert-May 2010);
  3. The measurement of significantly higher learning gains and better conceptual understanding when student participation and cooperative problem solving during class time was substituted for traditional lecturing (Knight and Wood 2005);
  4. Evidence that teaching biology in an AL environment is more effective than traditional instruction in promoting academic achievement, increasing conceptual understanding, developing higher level thinking skills, and enhancing students’ interest in biology (Burrowes  2003; Marcey, 2014);
  5. The observation of pronounced differences between students taught biology traditionally and those taught with a series of active, inquiry-based learning modules (Udovic et al. 2000), termed “Workshop Biology.”