Future GER (Research) Should be Directed by Results of Meta-Analysis of Fragmented Literature on Active Learning Interventions

Scott Brande, University of Alabama at Birmingham

I think the most important (and recent) paper published in the field of STEM learning is that by Freeman et al (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.long. After filtering 642 research literature reports on traditional and active learning, 225 studies passed a number of requirements for inclusion in this massive meta-analysis. No surprise that the bottom line is that active learning interventions (taken as a whole) significantly reduce course failure rates, and raise grades by about ½ a letter.
The figures and supplementary tables are worth studying, for the data are broken down by STEM discipline. In Fig. 2 for example, of 158 studies, the geologic literature contributed the least - precisely 2 (thanks for your work, Dave McConnell and co-authors, 2005, 2006). McConnell's studies resulted in a decreased failure rate of about 8% (from the figure) - the lowest impact of 53 studies among 7 STEM disciplines.
Wieman (2014) http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8319 commented on the Freeman et al study, and he noted that the "...implications of these meta-analysis results for instruction are profound, assuming they are indicative of what could be obtained if active learning methods replaced the lecture instruction that dominates US postsecondary STEM instruction. With a total annual enrollment in STEM courses of several million, a reduction in average failure rate from 34% to 22% would mean that an enormous number of students who are now failing STEM courses would instead be successfully completing them. The expected gains in learning for all students in STEM courses are equally important."

What may be most relevant for the GER community is the direction Wieman believes educational research should take. 1) Further research should identify "...the relative benefits of different active learning methods and the most effective means of implementation." 2) "...One promising direction ... is that 'more is better'. The highest impacts are observed in studies where a larger fraction of the class time was devoted to active learning."

For our community, this means that traditional lecture minutes should be reduced, with the concomitant increase in minutes devoted to the most promising active learning interventions.
I believe the Freeman et al study, and Wieman's comments, provide the general direction we should follow, with the details a topic for our domain-specific discussions.