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How Active Learning Technology Improves Student Outcomes

Education August 3, 2017

Undergraduate university students who are after a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are more successful in an active learning classroom environment than their counterparts who sit through traditional lectures, according to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What's active learning? The authors of the study took submissions from 338 audience members from universities in the U.S. and Canada to come up with this definition:

Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.

The authors also looked at 225 studies that reported on exam scores or failure rates in STEM courses that were taught in a traditional lecture format versus an active learning environment.

The focus of the study centered around two questions:

  • Does active learning boost examination scores?
  • Does it lower failure rates?

Based on the authors’ analysis, the “average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections.” What’s more, students who took the traditional lecture track were “1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” 

Failure rates:

  • Active learning – 21.8%
  • Traditional lecture – 33.8%

“The data reported here indicate that active learning increases examination performance by just under half a SD (standard deviations) and that lecturing increases failure rates by 55%,” the study said.

Graph A shows the failure rates in the same course, with the difference being teaching style: active learning versus traditional lecture. The red dotted line is the mean change, which is 12 percent. Graph B shows failure rates by classroom type. The blue and orange dotted lines show the mean failure rate by teaching style. Active learning: 22.8%, traditional lecturing: 33.8%. Image: Freeman, et all; PNAS. Graph A shows the failure rates of the same course, with the difference being teaching style: active learning versus traditional lecture. The red dotted line is the mean change, 12 percent. Graph B shows failure rates by classroom type. The blue and orange dotted lines show the mean failure rate by teaching style. Active learning: 22.8%, traditional lecturing: 33.8%. Image: Freeman, et all; PNAS.

 

To put it simply, B+ students under the traditional lecture track would be A- students in an active learning environment. Also, it's likely that the pedagogical style benefits retention rates among students, given the increased performance and reduced failure rates – something that’s greatly needed for the STEM field.

While lecturing has dominated the classroom for hundreds of years, active learning practices are taking root in various educational institutions because of the significant differences they can make.

But, what does that look like? What does an active learning environment look like?

What Does Active Learning Look Like?

The University of North Dakota was approved for $123.7 million to build a new health care facility on its Grand Forks campus. The 325,000-square-foot School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) building brings students, faculty and staff from different medical disciplines together for better collaboration and active learning. A big part of that is the technology that enables these practices.

“Active learning is a real exciting opportunity in this new building,” said Gwen Halaas, senior associate dean of education, in a video about the building. “The space is designed to allow our students to work together in small groups and have more conversations. They’re more engaged, and the evidence shows us that that also increases their learning outcomes.”

The university’s classrooms in the SMHS building shows a bright, naturally lit room with numerous group tables, seating about six students each. Monitors rise up at the end of each table for easier viewing and collaboration. At the very front of the classroom are two pull-down screens that show images from ceiling-mounted projectors.

The University of Minnesota has a similar setup. The U of M’s Active Learning Classrooms are relatively large rooms, with multiple tables that seat up to nine students. At each table are microphones for students, personal device hookups, and numerous flat-panel display projection systems for content sharing.

“When the students first walk into this classroom, it sends the message right away that this isn’t business as usual," said Dr. Robin Wright, a professor of biology at the university, in a video about the classrooms. “You instantly become a part of a team, and you start to be responsible to one another in that team to bring what you’ve learned and to teach one another.”

“When the students first walk into this classroom, it sends the message right away that this isn’t business as usual."

Each team sits at a round table with enough device hookups for three computers. Those hookups connect to a monitor that’s dedicated to that table. Students can display what’s on their computers instantly. Dr. Wright said that peer review could be done on the spot by pulling up content on every monitor.

Student David Rittenhouse said, “I was just blown away at that this is what a college classroom could look like.”

“The technology really enhanced it for me because you could see what they’re talking about up on the big screen. If you found something, you could share it with everybody else in the class,” he said.

Students explained that the environment helped them achieve a deeper learning experience because of the communal format of the room and the technology that was blended into the experience.

Using Tech to Teach

Teachers and professors at all levels implement technology into their lessons. When it comes to choosing the right tech that enables active learning, there are a number of options.

Interactive whiteboards make the conversations more visual and engaging, while content sharing helps establish a concrete example for the entire classroom. Some are even working virtual reality into the mix. That's because innovative technology attracts students to campus and keeps them engaged.

An interactive video wall proved to be a hit with students at the University of Nebraska – Omaha because of its live streaming and testing capabilities.

At the University of North Dakota, technology is integrated into every classroom, meeting room and public space to enhance visitors' experiences, deepen connections among students, and improve learning outcomes.

What's vital to identifying the right technology is what it'll be used for. Active learning technology helps students and teachers work together in a more collaborative way, with easy adoption and use. See how to University of North Dakota implemented active learning technology in this case study.

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