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Lecture or Active Learning? When to Decide

For Those Who Teach

Lecture or Active Learning? When to Decide

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I think the active learning versus lecture debate is finally moving on to more useful questions than which one is better. Now there’s interest in deciding when to lecture and when to use active learning. When do we make those decisions, and are we making them purposefully? It seems to me that the place to start is with the realization that it isn’t a one-time decision but something to consider at four different points.

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I think the active learning versus lecture debate is finally moving on to more useful questions than which one is better. Now there’s interest in deciding when to lecture and when to use active learning. When do we make those decisions, and are we making them purposefully? It seems to me that the place to start is with the realization that it isn’t a one-time decision but something to consider at four different points.

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It’s an issue to confront when planning tomorrow’s class session. At that point, the decision needs to reflect what best suits the content. If the content is new or complex or has confused students previously, the teacher may need to explain it. If it’s a set of related ideas, perhaps the teacher makes the first link and students work to put the rest together. If the content has already been covered, students will benefit more by doing the review themselves than by having the teacher do it for them.

It’s also a decision to consider when designing or redesigning a course. At this juncture, it isn’t just what to do on a daily basis; rather, it’s an overall vision of how lecture and active learning will be used across the course. The underlying question involves the best way to learn the course material, and that includes learning the content and the skills the content can be used to develop. What’s a good balance between learning through listening and learning through practice? Sometimes that distinction is easy to see. Students can learn about a professional skill—say, CPR—but they won’t be able to use it unless they practice. The distinction is less obvious with thinking skills. What can students learn about critical thinking or problem-solving by seeing someone else do it, and what can they learn about each when they practice doing them?

During course design or redesign, the lecture/active learning decision also needs to account for students. Where are they in relation to the content? Is the material all new to them? How much foundational knowledge do they need before they’re able to start working with the content on their own? If the new content presumes prior knowledge, how likely are students to have it? What level of interest do students have in course content, and is that interest better heightened by hearing about the content or by doing something with it?        

Consideration of lecture or active learning should be part of the conversation when colleagues are creating a curriculum. What’s a good balance of active learning and lecture across a set of courses? Does one or the other work best given the content of particular courses? Are there reasons for more active learning at some points in the curriculum—say, early on? Should the active learning experiences themselves be sequenced, maybe by their complexity? Perhaps a more fundamental question than these should come first: Is it possible to increase the potency of learning experiences by considering how active learning and lecture might connect across courses and throughout a curriculum?

Perhaps the most challenging decision is the one made when class is in session. Deciding in the moment depends on having a repertoire of strategies on hand, having additional explanations or examples to resolve the confusion, or seeing the need for activity to refocus attention or practice to reinforce a new understanding. Being able to summon what’s needed and fit it to the content on the fly requires skill and courage. Both come with experience and the willingness to take risks. The payoff is how that flexibility can switch on learning, make it happen when it isn’t taking place.

Active learning and lecture—it’s not always obvious when to use one or the other. We haven’t discovered empirically or practically the best way to balance them within a class session, course, or curriculum. But we need to start figuring that out because there may be synergies between the two we have yet to discover. Let’s begin by considering when to make decisions about which to use. Then we can move on to the equally complicated and unexplored relationship between what needs to be taught and the best strategies for learning it.