Undergraduate STEM education still has a long way to go before it catches up with modern teaching techniques such as student-centered teaching or active learning, according to an analysis of 2,000 science college classes across North America.

Over half the lectures surveyed (55 percent) consisted of conventional lecturing, according to the study, recently published in the journal Science. A further 27 percent incorporated group activities such as discussions and multiple choice, and only 18 percent put the emphasis on student-centered teaching.

“There is an enormous amount of work that has demonstrated that these (student-centered) strategies improve students’ learning and attitudes toward science,” said Dr. Marilyn Stains, the study’s lead author and Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It’s not just that they understand it better, but they also appreciate science more. They’re not as scared of it, and they engage more easily with it.

“When you see that kind of effect, it makes you say, ‘Why are we still doing it the other way?’”

The research team monitored STEM classroom practices by documenting behavior by students and instructors in two-minute intervals. After analysis, each behavior was categorized into seven instructional profiles, then further grouped into conventional teaching, group activities and student-centered learning. The study’s scale makes it a “reliable snapshot” of the state of STEM education in North America, say the authors.

The authors also add that there seem to be a couple of barriers some lecturers need to get through before introducing active learning and a predominantly student-centered style. The first one is initial student resistance—many, at least initially, resent having to actually mentally engage in a different way, although they quickly realize they end up learning more.

As Steins explained to Nebraska’s NPR station, “There’s a lot of research that shows that students like [active learning] strategies, but when you first start implementing them, students may become a bit resistant to them because now you put the learning responsibility on the students… There’s a bit of cultural shock.”

Another barrier to active learning cited by the study is lack of training. Even in smaller-sized classrooms, which lend themselves more to group work, about half of the courses were traditional ‘sage on the stage’ lectures.

“If there’s not a budget for professional development to help faculty use those environments, they’re doing to default to what they know best, which is lecturing,” says Steins. (The lack of formalized teacher training for lecturers was one major issue highlighted in our recent webinar with author Jacques Berlinerblau.)

Active learning is a broad definition for several in-class activities designed to make students directly engage with each other and the material, instead of a lecturer. As well as multiple-choice questions, popular tools include “think-pair-share”—where you briefly pause your lecture and ask students to discuss material, then tell them to share observations with the entire class. Another is “peer instruction,” where students prepare and present course material to the class.

“Active learning involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing,” explained Charles Bonwell and James Eison in their 1991 book, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.

Stains says in the end, students do respond well to active learning and student-centered instruction, even if it’s a surprise at first. “You really need to explain [what you’re doing] as an instructor in your classroom. But in general, they recognize that those practices really help them with their learning.”

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