University science professors preach a gospel of seeking truth through data and careful experimentation, yet when they walk into a classroom, they use methods that are outmoded and ineffective. The overwhelming fraction of undergraduate science courses are taught by a professor lecturing to students, even in the face of many hundreds of studies showing that alternative teaching methods demonstrate much greater student learning and lower failure rates.
These different methods go by a number of names, including active learning. Their common feature is that, rather than listening passively, students spend class time engaged in answering questions, solving problems, discussing solutions with their peers and reasoning about the material they are studying, all while getting regular feedback from their teacher. As reported in a 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences and in a detailed review published online in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, this approach improves learning across the science and engineering disciplines and in both introductory and advanced courses [see graph on opposite page].
There are many different ways to implement active learning. In smaller classes, students often work in groups to complete a series of steps that make up a larger problem. In classes of 100 to 300 students, instructors often use “clickers,” devices that allow students to transmit answers to a teacher instantly by pushing a button from their seat. This allows a teacher to see immediately what fraction of the students comprehend the material. The best questions are challenging and involve understanding and using basic concepts rather than simple memorization. When most of the class gets a question wrong, the teacher has students discuss it with their neighbors and re-vote. Meanwhile the teacher listens in on those conversations and provides targeted help to the students. With any of these methods, the teacher still spends a considerable amount of time talking, but the listeners are students who have been prepared to learn. They understand why the material is worthwhile and how it can be used to solve problems. The material is now in a context that makes sense rather than being given as a set of meaningless facts and procedures that they can only memorize without understanding.
The educational research for K–12 classes offers a less clear picture in favor of active learning. That is because the research in K–12 is more difficult, with far more things that are outside the researchers' control. Perhaps the most important variable is the uneven and often low level of subject mastery by teachers. Because active learning requires practice and feedback on thinking like an expert (a scientist), it demands considerably greater subject expertise by the teacher. At the college level, teacher subject knowledge is not a problem, the student population is far more homogeneous, and there are far fewer issues that may affect learning. Unfortunately, the low level of subject mastery by K–12 science teachers will remain until college science teaching improves to the point that all students, including future K–12 teachers, graduate with a solid understanding of science and a better model for good science teaching and learning.
With so much scientific evidence behind active learning, the obvious question is, Why are these methods so seldom used in colleges and universities? Part of it is just habit; lectures began at universities because they did not have books, and so information had to be dictated and copied. Teaching methods have not yet adapted to the invention of the printing press. A second reason is a fundamentally flawed understanding of learning. Most people, including university faculty and administrators, believe learning happens by a person simply listening to a teacher. That is true if one is learning something very simple, like “Eat the red fruit, not the green one,” but complex learning, including scientific thinking, requires the extended practice and interaction described earlier to literally rewire the brain to take on new capabilities. The most important reason higher education does not change methodologies, however, is that there is no incentive. Faculty and universities are recognized and rewarded only for how successful they are at pursuing the $40 billion a year of federal research money. There is zero incentive to use effective research-based teaching methods rather than pedagogical superstition and habit, and in fact, very few, if any, universities in the U.S. track what teaching methods are being used in their classrooms. As long as this holds true, prospective students have no way to compare the quality of education they will receive at different institutions, and so no institution needs to improve.