Lecture Learning vs. Active Learning

Should we be done with the debate?

Lecture Learning vs Active Learning - Is there reason for a debate?

This past week, I had an opportunity to hear Justin Reich (MIT Teaching Labs Researcher) speak for the second time and he referenced a white paper called: “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”. His interpretation of the paper was that the data indicated that “it is almost unethical to use lecturing in a control group when comparing with active learning.” It reminded me of a recent article I wrote inspired by the book, Teaching Minds by Robert Schank.

While you can access the entire 6-page paper here to come up with your own interpretations, I’ve quoted the abstract from the paper below, for your convenience:


The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has called for a 33% increase in the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) bachelor’s degrees completed per year and recommended adoption of empirically validated teaching practices as critical to achieving that goal. The studies analyzed here document that active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning. The analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.


To test the hypothesis that lecturing maximizes learning and course performance, we metaanalyzed 225 studies that reported data on examination scores or failure rates when comparing student performance in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses under traditional lecturing versus active learning. The effect sizes indicate that on average, student performance on examinations and concept inventories increased by 0.47 SDs under active learning (n = 158 studies), and that the odds ratio for failing was 1.95 under traditional lecturing (n = 67 studies). These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning. Heterogeneity analyses indicated that both results hold across the STEM disciplines, that active learning increases scores on concept inventories more than on course examinations, and that active learning appears effective across all class sizes—although the greatest effects are in small (n ≤ 50) classes. Trim and fill analyses and fail-safe ncalculations suggest that the results are not due to publication bias. The results also appear robust to variation in the methodological rigor of the included studies, based on the quality of controls over student quality and instructor identity. This is the largest and most comprehensive metaanalysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date. The results raise questions about the continued use of traditional lecturing as a control in research studies, and support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms.

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth.

Big Questions

Two big questions that are still circling in my head include:

  1. What does “good” active learning look like in my subject area?
  2. How can I make progress to move away from a lecture-based approach without completely overwhelming myself?

Has this research sparked any questions in your head? I would love to hear about them if you’re willing to share!

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  • Chris Stewart

    Hi Kyle.

    I can identify with “Big Question” #2. In trying to reduce the degree of feeling/being overwhelmed, I’m wondering if one strategy might be for educators to begin their transition to incorporating activity-based learning by ‘flipping’ some of their direct instruction? By displacing some of the lecture outside of the classroom, perhaps classroom time could then be used more often for conjecturing/following inquiries and project-based learning. And as we continue to ‘let go’ and follow students’ lead, we might then be able and be more comfortable using various teaching strategies flexibly.

    I’m wondering if anyone has had some experience flipping instruction such that it has created more opportunities for students and teachers to explore and apply teaching strategies flexibly? If so, I’d love to hear from the @flip4change

    • Heather Lye

      There are many math educators around using flipped instruction techniques. It did allow me to purposefully take time for more investigative learning in class than I likely would have otherwise. Unfortunately I’m not teaching math again this year.

      • I can definitely see the logic in using a flipped approach in order to make time for more rich tasks in the classroom. I’m currently exploring more knowledge/application based questions for homework and saving thinking/inquiry style questions for during class. I suspect the result might touch on what you reference here.

    • Hi Chris,
      I can definitely agree that flipping might free up some of that time. I wonder if we could also consider being more mindful of the key pieces we want to convey via direct instruction and eliminate some of the not-so-important pieces to free up some of that time. This is obviously easier said than done, but possibly worth some thought.

  • Beth Holland

    Hi, Kyle.

    While I agree with Justin’s claim, I do sometimes wonder if it is the act of lecture or what we choose to do with it. Occasionally, direct instruction may be the fastest way to deliver content and push students towards more cognitively demanding work. However, that does not mean droning on for 60 minutes without ever engaging the students.

    About a year ago, I learned about Alan November’s “Learning Farm” model from Silvia Tolisano in her post about Collaborate and Curate – http://langwitches.org/blog/2014/05/09/building-content-knowledge-collaborate-and-curate. This may be an entry point to start easing students into the process of knowledge co-construction and active learning as it presents clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

    Specific to your classroom, I could see active learning as an opportunity to actively engage with concepts, topics, and procedures through manipulation, exploration, and even active debate. However, you know your own students better than anyone.

    Thanks for continuing the debate!

    • I think you hit the nail on the head. Lecture and direct instruction is a great way to communicate information, but I think careful planning and timing is key to maximize effectiveness. Unfortunately, both of those pieces are easy to forget when we are planning our lessons.

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