Experiments in Education: Kicking Off A Semester of Active Learning

We have entire education systems set up to transition novices to experts, but do they work? Research repeatedly establishes that traditional university lectures are ineffective, and that active learning is a far more reliable alternative. I'm going to experiment on my students and see how it works.

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The traditional university lecture — professor yattering at the front of the class, diligent students silently copying down notes — is absolute rubbish at turning novices into experts. We have a lot of research backing that up, but more importantly, we have a slowly growing body of research developing a better way: Active learning.

Active learning is the admittedly dorky term for any teaching style that relies on actively engaging students to participate in learning. This can be upside-down classrooms where students pre-read lectures, then show up in class to complete worksheets and problem sets usually reserved for homework, or forming lesson plans reliant on learner-generated content. The research literature is full of potential activities with obscure, jargon-y names: jigsaws and fishbowls, concept maps and "one-minute" papers, note-sharing and role playing, and so many more.

Next week, I start teaching a university-level introductory geoscience course. For the first time, I'm fully embracing active learning. I have no idea how it's going to work, but I'm going to tell you about it here each week in this new series, Experiments in Education.

I've taught introductory science courses before, but I've always been vaguely unsatisfied with the results. Intellectually, I know that active learning works from all the research that backs it up, but I've been resistant to actually relying on it. The first few times I encountered people extolling the virtues of active learning, I reflexively denied its utility. I went through traditional classrooms and learned a lot! Class discussions are awkward for everyone (especially for me!) What if no one participates and we all just stare at each other? No, no, no! Rebuilding curricula around active learning seems like a lot of work with no guarantee of a positive payout, no matter what the research says.

But then I tried it. I started small, taking a break in a lecture on geologic time to have my students explore radioactive half-life through flipping coins and "decaying" out of the game. It was fun, it knocked off the post-lunch lethargy, and best of all, I overheard my students engaged in unprompted peer-teaching their absent classmates the following class. I graduated to bringing in the occasional activity, but still relied heavily on lectures as a form of direct information transfer. Even though I knew they didn't work very well, traditional lectures were comfortable and familiar.

But the real change came when I signed up for a teaching course. The instruction team believed deeply in modelling best practices, running each class segment using the techniques and philosophies they were teaching us. During lab, we did 15-minute practice lessons in small groups of my peers. Even when the activities went off the rails and took a totally unexpected turn, they were both effective and memorable. Despite all my doubts, my experiences kept playing out exactly how the research promised. My resistance melted: active learning worked.


While many people hate the much-maligned breadth requirement course, it offers unparalleled independence to test out active learning in a real classroom. My job is to introduce these students to the practice of science and the wonder of geology. I don't need to impart a specific list of facts and skills to prepare them for the next class in the sequence. If a particular activity completely bombs, I have the opportunity to rethink, revise, and reteach the following class without falling behind some arbitrary schedule of shoving facts down their throats.

But like I teach my students, it isn't science unless it's written down. The Experiments in Education series will be my logbook, a weekly report on my attempts at active learning, what worked, and what went catastrophically wrong. By sharing it with you, not only will I get your insights and ideas on how to improve, but I'll be able to share what I learn from both successes and failures to help other educators incorporate more active learning into their lesson plans.


Science is both awe-inspiring and incredibly useful. Anything that makes science a little bit more accessible and increases widespread scientific literacy is worth the effort.

Have you tried active learning before, as a student or teacher? What was the experience like?




Hmm. How does active teaching compare across students with different learning styles? What about lab components for different courses? That's kind of along the same vein right?

I know my favorite class in college was an anthropology class about osteology. The professor brought bones every day and we took a few notes and looked at bones. And then for the final project we got to go over to the natural history museum and catalog and identify a skeleton with a partner. I'd say that was the most active teaching course I've been in and I did really enjoy it.

But I feel like I'd be a lot like you at first. Give me mind numbing notes and powerpoints! I do think that having notes you can refer back to is helpful. So I don't think you could ever really eliminate the lecture entirely. But I can see where an activity could help greatly reinforce the practical ideas.