This paper describes a study conducted on physics students at Harvard University. The study shows that students think that they learn more from fluent, well delivered lectures than they do from being required to actively engage with problem solving. But the test scores from two groups, the first taught by the former method and the second by the latter, suggest that the reverse is true. Students learn more when required to engage in deliberate practice and struggle with difficult problems.
This could be said simply to confirm existing evidence, but the rigour with which the study was conducted gives it additional weight in any discussion of which teaching methods should prevail. Alongside students being randomly assigned to one group or another for the duration of the study, care was taken to ensure that the two groups received exactly the same course materials, and that both instructors had not only received ‘extensive, identical training in active learning’ but also had ‘comparable experience in delivering fluent, traditional lectures’. The outcomes cited (that students taught using active methods of study went on to achieve higher test scores than students taught by passive methods) were measured by a multiple choice test. To avoid bias in the wording and structure of the test, the questions in it were devised by a third party, rather than by either course tutor. The study was conducted twice, using different students each time. The results from the two trials were very similar.
This means that in the case of both trials, students underestimated the value to them of being required to use active learning methods. Why? The authors of the study suggest that there are three reasons for this.
(1) Listening to the well prepared, well delivered lectures tricked the students into a false confidence with the material. This is why we need to remind students that understanding something in the moment is not the same as having learnt it. Equally, we need to make sure that students are familiar with the idea that struggling with a difficult problem is good for their intellectual development.
(2) Students are not always good judges of their own learning, especially if they are new to the subject they are studying.
(3) University students are not sufficiently exposed to active learning methods, and perhaps tend to assume that what is familiar to them from other courses (lectures) is what works.
All this is a reminder that is not enough simply to use effective learning methods with our students, we also need to make sure that they understand the benefits of these learning benefits to their present and future success.