Improve grades, reduce failure -- undergrads should tell profs 'Don't lecture me'

May 12, 2014

A significantly greater number of students fail science, engineering and math courses that are taught lecture-style than fail in classes incorporating so-called active learning that expects them to participate in discussions and problem-solving beyond what they've memorized.

Active learning also improves exam performance - in some cases enough to change grades by half a letter or more so a B-plus, for example, becomes an A-minus.

Those findings are from the largest and most comprehensive analysis ever published of studies comparing lecturing to active learning in undergraduate education, said Scott Freeman, a University of Washington principal lecturer in biology. He's lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 12.

Freeman and his co-authors based their findings on 225 studies of undergraduate education across all of the "STEM" areas: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They found that 55 percent more students fail lecture-based courses than classes with at least some active learning. Two previous studies looked only at subsets of the STEM areas and none before considered failure rates.

On average across all the studies, a little more than one-third of students in traditional lecture classes failed - that is, they either withdrew or got Fs or Ds, which generally means they were ineligible to take more advanced courses. On average with active learning, a little more than one-fifth of students failed.

"If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning according to our analysis," Freeman said. "There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we're talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out - every year."

This could go a long way toward meeting national calls like the one from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology saying the U.S. needs a million more STEM majors in the future, Freeman said.

Attempts by college faculty to use active learning, long popular in K-12 classrooms, started taking off in the mid-1990s, Freeman said, though lecturing still dominates.

"We've got to stop killing student performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help them think like scientists," he said.

In introduction to biology courses, Freeman's largest UW class had 700 students, he expects students to read their $200 textbooks and arrive in class knowing the material for the day. Quizzes on the readings the night before keep their feet to the fire.

"These students got into college by being ferocious memorizers so we don't need to spend class time going over what they've already read," Freeman says. "A reading assignment on how sperm and eggs form might then lead me to ask the class how male contraceptives might work. After giving them time to come up with their own ideas and rationale, I might give them a couple more minutes to discuss it with each other, and then I call on students randomly to start the discussion."

Knowing they could get called on at any time encourages students to stay focused.

Having students use clickers ¬- hand-held wireless devices - to answer multiple-choice questions in class is another example of how active learning keeps students engaged.

"We characterize it as, 'Ask, don't tell,'" said Mary Wenderoth, a UW principal lecturer and a co-author on the paper.

For the paper, more than 640 studies comparing lecturing with some kind of active learning were examined by Freeman, Wenderoth and their other co-authors, Sarah Eddy, Miles McDonough, Nnadozie Okoroafor and Hannah Jordt, all with the UW biology department, and Michelle Smith with the University of Maine. The studies, conducted at four-year and community colleges mainly in the U.S., appeared in STEM education journals, databases, dissertations and conference proceedings.

Some 225 of those studies met the standards to be included in the analysis including: assurances the groups of students being compared were equally qualified and able; that instructors or groups of instructors were the same; and that exams given to measure performance were either exactly alike or used questions pulled from the same pool of questions each time.

The data were considered using meta-analysis, an approach long used in fields such as biomedicine to determine the effectiveness of a treatment based on studies with a variety of patient groups, providers and ways of administering the therapy or drugs.

About grade improvement, the findings showed improvements on exams increased an average of 6 percent. Using grading typical in UW's introductory biology, physics and chemistry courses, a gain of 6 percent would have raised students half a grade turning a C-plus into a B-minus, for example, or a B-plus into an A-minus.

If the failure rates of 34 percent for lecturing and 22 percent in classes with some active learning were applied to the 7 million U.S. undergraduates who say they want to pursue STEM majors, some 2.38 million students would fail lecture-style courses vs. 1.54 million with active learning. That's 840,000 additional students failing under lecturing, a difference of 55 percent compared to the failure rate of active learning.

"That 840,000 students is a large portion of the million additional STEM majors the president's council called for," Freeman said.

Community colleges and universities could help faculty incorporate effective active learning by providing guidance - the UW, for instance, has a Center for Teaching and Learning to share expertise - as well as rewards, Freeman said.
For more information:


Wenderoth, 206-685-8022,

Suggested contact: Expert willing to comment on the PNAS publication

Carl Wieman
Professor of physics and education, Stanford University
Formerly associate director for science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and former director of science education initiatives at the University of Colorado and the University of British Columbia
650-725-2356 (Rachel Knowles can help you reach Wieman by phone)


Please contact Sandra Hines,, for names of UW undergraduates available to talk to reporters

Suggested contacts: UW collaborators at other institutions

University of Maine

Michelle Smith
Assistant professor of biology and ecology
I have incorporated active learning into classes for the past 8 years. My main teaching responsibility includes a general genetics course for undergraduates. My teaching philosophy is that students learn best when they actively engage in the classroom, their conceptions of the material are acknowledged and used as a starting point for instruction and they see the relevance of the material they are learning. Students are asked to come to my class with their "minds on." (Note: Smith is a co-author on the PNAS paper)

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Kelly Hogan
Senior lecturer in biology and director of instructional innovation for the College of Arts and Sciences
I've incorporated active learning into my teaching for the last 5 to 7 years, beginning in my smallest class of 30 students, then moving to clickers in my genetics course of 200 students and finally trying numerous types of active learning techniques plus clickers in my 400-person introductory biology course. I could never go back to a traditional room where I transmit all the information via lecture. In addition to the student achievement, this teaching style suits my personality far better.

Eastern Michigan University

Anne Casper
Assistant professor of biology
I regularly lead the introductory biology course for students majoring in biology, usually about 220 students per semester. I have used some aspects of active learning for 5 years. This past academic year was the first time that I incorporated as much as possible the type of active learning that Scott Freeman does in his biology classes at UW such as adding pre-class guided reading assignments, pre-class warm-up quizzes and focusing on asking questions of students during classes using a random-call list. I was surprised by how many emails I received from students expressing their happiness at the way I'd structured the course.

Suggested contacts: Helping faculty change

Can describe the University of Washington's two decades-long effort to encourage faculty to incorporate active learning and improve teaching by providing such things as workshops, information and overviews of best practices.

Gerald Baldasty
Senior Vice Provost for Academic and Student Affairs

Beth Kalikoff
Director of the UW Center for Teaching and Learning

University of Washington

Related Learning Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

When learning on your own is not enough
We make decisions based on not only our own learning experience, but also learning from others.

Learning more about particle collisions with machine learning
A team of Argonne scientists has devised a machine learning algorithm that calculates, with low computational time, how the ATLAS detector in the Large Hadron Collider would respond to the ten times more data expected with a planned upgrade in 2027.

Getting kids moving, and learning
Children are set to move more, improve their skills, and come up with their own creative tennis games with the launch of HomeCourtTennis, a new initiative to assist teachers and coaches with keeping kids active while at home.

How expectations influence learning
During learning, the brain is a prediction engine that continually makes theories about our environment and accurately registers whether an assumption is true or not.

Technology in higher education: learning with it instead of from it
Technology has shifted the way that professors teach students in higher education.

Learning is optimized when we fail 15% of the time
If you're always scoring 100%, you're probably not learning anything new.

School spending cuts triggered by great recession linked to sizable learning losses for learning losses for students in hardest hit areas
Substantial school spending cuts triggered by the Great Recession were associated with sizable losses in academic achievement for students living in counties most affected by the economic downturn, according to a new study published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Lessons in learning
A new Harvard study shows that, though students felt like they learned more from traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in active learning classrooms.

Learning to look
A team led by JGI scientists has overhauled the perception of inovirus diversity.

Read More: Learning News and Learning Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to