Science: Active Teaching Improves Test Scores and Attendance Compared to Traditional Lecture Method

Many university students would rather take a course taught by a popular, experienced professor than one taught by an inexperienced postdoctoral student, but that may not be the better choice. A report in the 13 May issue of the journal Science suggests that teachers’ methods—specifically whether they use an active teaching format or the more traditional lecture—matter more than their experience when it comes to student learning.


Carl Wieman [All photos: Martin Dee, University of British Columbia (UBC)]
Carl Wieman | All photos: Martin Dee, University of British Columbia (UBC)

A Canadian research team that included Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman compared two large sections of an introductory physics course at the University of British Columbia during a one-week experiment. One of the sections followed the traditional lecture format and was taught by a charismatic faculty member with high student evaluations and many years of experience teaching this course. In the other section, a trained but inexperienced postdoctoral student taught the class with a more active learning approach, involving questions where the students could respond individually via an electronic “clicker,” small group tasks, and opportunities for discussion within the class session.


Compared to the students in the lecture, the students in the section with the active learning methods attended more classes, were more engaged during class, and scored roughly twice as high on a test given at the end of the week, the researchers report.

When the students in each section were tested after the week’s lessons on electricity and magnetism, the average test score in the active learning section was 74%, compared to 41% in the traditional lecture section. Attendance in the active learning section also rose by approximately 20% during the week, compared to attendance in the class before the experiment.

Students used an electronic clicker (above) in the experimental physics class.
Students used an electronic clicker (above) in the experimental physics class.

Wieman, who also serves as the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the overall results “make it very clear that this form of teaching here was much more effective for all of the students” in the active learning section.

Louis Deslauriers, a postdoctoral fellow at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, taught the active learning section for the experiment along with UBC physics postdoctoral student Ellen Schelew. “Teaching the experimental section during the study was a lot of fun for Ellen and I,” he noted during a 11 May teleconference with journalists. “The energy in the class and the excitement of the students makes for a great learning environment.”

Deslauriers said the students’ questions became more sophisticated in the active learning section.

“Students aren’t just going through the motions of writing out a solution to a problem, as can be a typical part of traditional lecturing,” Schelew agreed. “Their brains are turned on. They’re thinking hard, and they’re really working through these problems.”

Deslauriers and Schelew were not experienced physics instructors, Wieman said, but received training in effective teaching practices before their week in the classroom. “So it really shows that there is nothing magical about a particular person,” he suggested. “It’s something you really can learn, and while it’s not trivial, it’s relatively straightforward to learn. So any teacher could do this, I think.”

Read the report, “”Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class,” by Louis Deslauriers and colleagues.

Listen to a 11 May Vancouver teleconference about the Science report or download the MP3.