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Why don’t more college instructors use active learning? Research shows that active learning increases student achievement and retention and can enhance diversity in STEM programs by narrowing the achievement gap for traditionally underrepresented students (Theobald et al., 2020). While active learning use among college instructors has grown over time, research shows that traditional lectures are still the most common form of instruction in undergraduate STEM classrooms. This suggests that the greatest challenge to improving undergraduate instruction might be not a lack of effective teaching strategies but finding ways to broaden the use of those strategies.
Instructors identify several barriers to adopting active learning, including skepticism of the research on its effectiveness and concerns about preparation time, content coverage and student resistance. Student resistance refers to negative student attitudes (e.g., disliking the activities or thinking they are a waste of time) and behaviors (e.g., refusing to participate in the activities or rating the instructor poorly on course evaluations). This is the barrier in most need of additional research. The effectiveness of active learning compared to traditional lectures is a settled research question. Similarly, concerns about preparation time and content coverage don’t require additional research; active learning techniques such as minute papers and think-pair-share activities are quick and easy to set up, and instructors concerned about content coverage can limit their use of active learning to two or three brief activities per class.
Addressing the barrier of student resistance is more challenging. Until recently, it has been easier to find opinions on how students respond to active learning than it has been to find research. That is beginning to change (Andrews et al., 2020; Andrews et al., 2021; Finelli et al., 2018; Tharayil et al., 2018). This research is encouraging, suggesting that instructors overestimate the level of student resistance to active learning (Andrews et al., 2020) and that most students report liking the activities and finding them valuable. While instructors worry about student participation, the most common student response to a professor asking them to engage in a course-related activity is simply to do it! Vocal student complaints about active learning during class are almost nonexistent. Even the more passive forms of student resistance, such as refusing to participate or distracting classmates from activities, are uncommon. Instructors’ overestimation of student resistance probably stems from the same negative bias that makes us overemphasize small numbers of negative student comments in our course evaluations. The research showing that most students like and value active learning hopefully will encourage more instructors to adopt it.
Of course, the fact that most students respond favorably to active learning does not mean that all students do. A number of factors influence students’ responses to active learning, but generally in ways that should be encouraging to instructors. For example, class size, student gender, instructor gender and student grade point average—all factors outside the teacher’s control—were not significant predictors of student resistance in these studies. The strongest predictors of student response to active learning were the use of specific instructor strategies to either initiate activities or keep them on track. In other words, the factors that correlated most strongly with positive student responses to active learning were the factors instructors control—how we teach!
One set of techniques that lower student resistance are explanation strategies, such as clearly explaining what students should do during the activity. One reason students don’t participate in activities is that the instructor simply isn’t clear about what students are expected to do. Other explanation strategies involve clarifying not what students should do but why they should do it. Examples include explaining how activities relate to students’ learning or their graded assignments. For example, an instructor might say, “It looks easy when I solve problems on the board, but most students find that when they attempt similar problems for homework, they’ve missed something crucial. The activities we’re doing in class today are designed to help identify where you need help in the homework so that I can provide that help while we’re all together in class.”
Another category of techniques that reduce student resistance are facilitation strategies that keep students engaged and on task during the activity. Facilitation strategies typically involve instructors modeling the engagement they want from students. For example, instructors should engage students during an activity by walking around the room and checking with students who seem to be struggling. Other facilitation strategies include encouraging students to ask questions or awarding points for participation. The more instructors engage with students during the activities, the more likely it is that students will engage. Since it’s student engagement that leads to learning, it’s likely that explanation and facilitation strategies that promote greater student participation also enhance educational outcomes. That’s something future research might examine.
Many instructors worry that students will rate them poorly on course evaluations if they experiment with active learning techniques. Since course evaluations are commonly used to determine tenure and promotion decisions, this isn’t a trivial concern. Here again the research is encouraging, showing that teaching evaluations generally correlate positively with active learning use. More important, there is a strong positive correlation between instructors’ use of explanation and facilitation strategies and students’ rating of the instructor and course. In the cited studies, the researchers divided classes into quartiles based on instructors’ relative use of these strategies. Courses in the lowest quartile of explanation and facilitation strategies received an average evaluation of 2.75 out of 5.00, while courses employing the highest quartile of these strategies received a rating of 4.25 out of 5.00. The use of explanation and facilitation strategies accounted for roughly 30 percent of the variance in student response.
In summary, recent research offers a lot of good news about student resistance, one of the key barriers discouraging instructors from adopting active learning techniques that improve student learning, enhance diversity and increase the retention rate of students in academic programs. Not only is student resistance less common than many instructors believe, but research also suggests that instructors can positively influence how students respond to active learning by adopting simple explanation and facilitation strategies.
Andrews, M., Prince, M., Finelli, C., Graham, M., Borrego, M., & Husman, J. (2021). Explanation and facilitation strategies reduce student resistance to active learning. College Teaching. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2021.1987183
Andrews, M. E., Graham, G., Prince, M. Borrego, M., Finelli, C. J., & Husman, J. (2020). Student resistance to active learning: Do instructors (mostly) get it wrong? Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 25(2), 142–154. https://doi.org/10.1080/22054952.2020.1861771
Finelli, C. J., Nguyen, K. A., DeMonbrun, R. M., Borrego, M., Prince, M. J., Husman, J., Henderson, C., Shekhar, P., & Waters, C. K. (2018). Reducing student resistance to active learning: Strategies for instructors. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(5), 80–91. https://doi.org/10.18260/1-2--35130
Tharayil, S., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Nguyen, K. A., Shekhar, P., Finelli, C. J., & Waters, C. (2018). Strategies to mitigate student resistance to active learning. International Journal of STEM Education, 5, Article 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-018-0102-y
Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., & Freeman, S. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6476–6483. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1916903117
Michael Prince, PhD, is a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University and codirector of two national faculty development programs: the National Effective Teaching Institute and How to Engineer Engineering Education. His research focuses on active learning strategies and promoting the adoption of research-based instructional strategies in higher education.