Active Learning: Endorsed but Not Used

Endorsed but not used: that's a nutshell summary of a study that looked at faculty use of active learning in a professional-level physiology program. The conclusion was supported by faculty and student perceptions of active learning use.

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Endorsed but not used: that's a nutshell summary of a study that looked at faculty use of active learning in a professional-level physiology program. The conclusion was supported by faculty and student perceptions of active learning use.

The faculty in the study is a small group, nine out of 13 members in the department. An interesting detail was noted by the research team. The four faculty who did not respond to the survey were all full professors. Ninety-seven percent, 119 students, completed the anonymous survey without any sort of incentive.

The responding faculty indicated that their primary instructional method was lecture. They used video or online learning and educational games and activities least of the six methods listed on the survey. The students, who had experienced a departmental course that included a significant number of active-learning components, were asked to rate the same six instructional methods according to their effectiveness in mastering physiology content. “Students reported statistically significant lower effectiveness of lectures and group learning compared with faculty use. On the other hand, students reported higher effectiveness of online learning and educational games and activities than faculty use.” (p. 248)

But that's probably not the most surprising outcome. Both faculty and students were asked to hypothesize about the effects of active learning. “Both faculty members and students reported similar positive effects of active learning on student enjoyment, motivation to learn, exam performance and retention of information.” (p. 248) More specifically on exam performance, both faculty and students reported they expected that the use of active learning would increase student exam scores by 14 percent. In a previously published study by one of these authors using this same student cohort in a course with active-learning components, unit exam scores increased by 9 percent and final exam scores by 23 percent.

Eighty-nine percent of the faculty thought there was not enough time to use active learning. The researchers point out that this argument rests on the assumption that students learn the content when they hear it during a lecture, a conclusion that finds scant support in the research. Faculty also reported that they did not have time to develop active-learning materials, lacked training, and perceived a lack of administrative support. A large majority of the students (91 percent) thought that faculty were not using more active learning because they were used to lecturing. They had lectures prepared and ready to go.

Findings like these are not encouraging. They confirm what has emerged in other research. Resistance to instructional change is deep-seated even when its benefits are well established and known by those who continue to rely on lecture. If there's a hint of encouragement here, it's in the 78 percent of the faculty cohort who indicated that they were interested in learning more about active learning in the classroom. One of the first things learning more might reveal is the plethora of active-learning activities and materials available in the literature and online.

Reference: Miller, C. J. and Metz, M. J., (2014). A comparison of professional-level faculty and student perceptions of active learning: Its current use, effectiveness, and barriers. Advances in Physiology Education, 38 (3), 246-252.