A Compelling Case for Active Learning

On Twitter the other day, a tweet from @TheAtlanticEducation caught my eye: All students don’t learn the same.  For readers of this blog, it will come as no surprise that this was clickbait for me—learning styles are our bête noire, so any article that potentially engages with that conversation is a must-read.

In fact, the article wasn’t about learning styles at all. But still interesting and very relevant to any educator: The article, “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science”, summarizes a recent study, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?” (open access) from biologists Kelly Hogan (UNC) and Sarah L. Eddy (Univ. of Washington) regarding how different pedagogies can affect students of diverse backgrounds differently. Hogan & Eddy’s study found that STEM courses structured around active learning produced improved outcomes for all students, regardless of their background, but produced a larger improvement in minority students. In fact, active learning pedagogies almost eliminated the gap in outcomes across demographic groups.

One excellent aspect of this study: Previous work has not been robust enough to draw conclusions about the transferability of methods across classrooms, instructors, and disciplines. The experimental design of Hogan & Eddy’s study indicates that active learning methodologies and a more structured course environment do, in fact, work across university contexts.

The preponderance of evidence, from this recent study and others (example), indicates that traditional lecture style classes no longer work, if they ever did. The literature on active learning raises the question: In an increasingly diverse educational landscape, is it even ethical to still teach mainly through lecture? If outcomes are so drastically improved across the board, are you even doing your job if you primarily lecture?

Though the Hogan & Eddy study looks at STEM classrooms, the broader literature indicates that active learning methods achieve similar results, regardless of the discipline. So what does that mean for librarians?

As we’ve discussed both on this blog and in presentations before, lecture-style “how to use a database” demonstrations need to go away…forever. Even if that’s the way we learned, that doesn’t a) mean it’s actually the most effective way to teach and b) take into account the varied backgrounds that students bring to the classroom. Active learning in the library classroom can take many forms, from asking students get their hands dirty in the databases and accomplish tasks to engaging in critical discussions about the creation of information. Yes, in almost every case, we don’t have time in a one-shot to get through everything we want to show students about library research, but if lecture-style teaching doesn’t result in solid, long-term outcomes, then wouldn’t it better be better to focus deeply on one or two critical IL skills that students can carry forward with them?

Active learning is, at its core, student-centered. No matter the good intentions behind it, lecture-style teaching is by nature much more about the lecturer. For educators with student-centered philosophies of teaching, it should come as no surprise that active learning pedagogies are critical to the future of education system with more equitable (and improved) learning outcomes.

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