Include non-lecture learning activities in class to improve student learning and retention in STEM disciplines

March 24, 2015

Many STEM disciplines link a large class, where instructors rely on lecture as a teaching strategy, with laboratory or recitation sections, where students encounter hands-on active learning experiences. Freeman et al. (2014) examined 225 publications in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) that compared the learning of students in two types of classes: large lecture classes that integrated active learning components and traditional lecture-only classes, in which active learning occurred only in the associated laboratories or recitations. Importantly, the metrics for learning used in these SoTL projects consisted of equivalent exams, concept inventories, or other assessments administered to students enrolled both types of classes. Researchers defined active learning as any of a variety of strategies:

  • Occasional group problem-solving
  • Worksheets or tutorials completed during class
  • Posing questions for personal response systems (clickers), with or without peer instruction
  • Studio or workshop course designs.

On average, students enrolled in the active learning classes earned a half-letter grade or higher on course exams. Moreover, retention improved significantly when classes included at least a few active learning components. Average failure rates in the active learning classes were 21.8%, compared to a 33.8% failure rate in traditional lecture classes. Thus, instructors who included active learning components in their STEM class meetings increased student learning, with direct benefits for student retention. The effect of active learning improves with smaller classes (fewer than 50 students), but Freeman et al. also found a significant benefit in large enrollment STEM classes.

Interestingly, Freeman et al. note that “if the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit – meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.” (p. 4) That is, the benefit of including at least some active learning components during class meetings for STEM classes is so great that failure to include these activities would be considered analogous to an unethical denial of a known beneficial medical treatment.

These findings do not mean that instructors should or must abandon traditional lectures entirely. However, the benefits for student learning are large enough that instructors should find a way to include a few non-lecture learning activities during traditional “lecture” classes.



Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014, May 12). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201319030.

National Science Foundation (May 12, 2014). Enough with the lecturing. Press Release 14-064.


3/31/15 ecr