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A Study of Active, Student-Engaged Learning versus Traditional Lecturing Style in Teaching

Traditional lecture methods, in which professors talk and students listen, constitute the primary teaching method in most college and university classrooms. However, an increasing number of students find lectures to be a relatively ineffective learning tool. Evidence suggests that students must be actively engaged in higher-order thinking task to effectively develop better reasoning and writing skills. Unfortunately, active learning exercises tend to be time-consuming, and do not allow for the coverage of as much material as a traditional lecture. Therefore, we hypothesize that the traditional lecture will be able to cover a larger amount of material, while actively engaging students will lead to increased comprehensive and conceptual understanding. To test this hypothesis, we have asked our Introductory Microbiology class at Columbia State Community College to participate in a series of structured learning modules. To begin, we assessed the students general knowledge of the subject with a pre-test consisting of simple recall, as well as more complex conceptual and reasoning questions. Additionally, we asked them to rate their confidence in their answers to each question. During the modules, we asked half of the class to sit in on a traditional lecture, while the other half was asked to participate in an active learning exercise. Subsequent to the module, we assessed their learning with a post-test, and we asked them again to rate their confidence in their answers. Surprisingly, we found that there was no significant difference in the test scores between the two groups. Additionally, there was no significant difference in the confidence ratings, although the trend showed a higher level of confidence in the lecture group. We think this study is important in that it sheds light on the uses and usefulness of different teaching tools, and encourages us to investigate our own teaching practices in order to improve our communication and teaching skills.


Meyer, C. and Jones, TB. (1992) Promoting active learning: Strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bruner, J. S. (1961). "The act of discovery". Harvard Educational Review 31 (1): 21 through 32.

Bonwell C and Eison J. ED340272 Sep 91. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ERIC Digest Clearninghouse on Higher Education, Washington D.C.; George Washington Univ., Washington, D.C.


Do most students learn better in a traditional lecture style compared to use of group activities? How difficult is it to institute group activities into the classroom and still cover the 'content' expected? Will use of group activities compared to traditional lecture lead to a difference in student confidence on a subject? How will students perceive these activities and how will they react to the idea that others in their "classroom" are being exposed to material in a different way? Would they have a preference/know their own best learning style?

Not one of my college science professors used group activities or/and problem based learning during lecture time. My exposure to teaching style as an undergraduate was very straight forward content. There was very little interaction between the lecturer and the students and definitely no interaction between students during lecture. I currently feel to design and implement group activities in my lectures will benefit the students by helping them learn to communicate with others and help them identify important concepts within a group. They are time consuming to develop and time consuming to 'practice'. To have data on their impact will help me justify my efforts and encourage me to find the right balance.

I believe these questions are of interest to others for the same reasons. To implement group activities in lecture is not an easy task and often instructors shy away just because of the time commitment. If there was data out there to suggest reasons to use one teaching method/style over another it would benefit the basic science instructor.

I was able to locate some literature dealing with the institution of a conceptual, problem based basic Biology class at an traditional undergraduate college. The literature suggested the students learned more (based on standardized testing), but that they were overly critical of the learning environment and the 'extra' work the class required of them. The instructors required more take home reading and assignments to make up for time lost in class doing 'activities'. I believe there is a balance that can be found. Not that student 'satisfaction' is a goal, but I would like to convey a love for science and learning.

I expected that a majority of the students will learn as much in the lecture as the group activity, but that group activities and the peer learning would lead to greater confidence and possibly longer retention of conceptual knowledge. Furthermore, I also expected some students to very clearly know which learning style they prefer and I think that may affect their confidence.


This project was conducted at the Columbia State Community College during the microbiology course, which I was instructing. The protocols described in this poster were approved by CSCC's Institutional Review Board. The research modules were done in collaboration with the laboratory instructor, Paige Baugher. The course is a 4-credit hour course which meets twice a week; i). 3 hours for lecture and ii). 2 hours for lab.

There were 21 students in the course for the full term. A majority of the students were "pre-allied health". There were veterinary technology majors, pre-nursing, respiratory care, pre-dental hygiene and some undeclared students . Most of these students were taking the class to get into the one of the allied health programs, but almost all were taking it because it is a required class for their major. It is commonly the second biology class these students enroll in at the college level. From what I have been told by Biology instructors these are the most motivated students at Columbia and the evening class is usually even a step above the day time students in those terms.

I had high expectations because this is a class that will impact their professional lives and it is very important they have an understanding of MANY concepts from this class. To really focus on the most important learning goals:

1. for them to understand the process of scientific discovery and how to critically evaluate how today's media presents scientific and health news.

2. for them to be able to identify both positive and negative impacts of microbes in society.

3. that they will understand the major differences between disease causing microbes and how those differences in genetics, metabolism, reproduction, ect affect the way each microbe causes disease.

4. that they will understand how the body responds to infections and vaccinations.

5. that they can not just identify to understand how a disease, treatment, or vaccination "works", but also how it affects public health issues, economics, religious beliefs.

Resources and Obstacles

We would like to thank the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching for providing the Classroom Response System and associated software used to assess classroom learning during this study.

We would also like to personally thank Derek Bruff, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the CFT, and Heather Rippetoe, Teaching Fellow, for their insights and direction in the design,implementation, and analysis of this project.

Finally, we would like to thank our students at Columbia State for their participation and good sportsmanship during the course of this project.

Gathering Evidence

These 'modules' were conducted with Paige Baugher. She is the instructor for the laboratory component of the same class. Students were asked to take a learning style quiz online and turn in the results.

The evidence was gathered over 4 class sessions spread throughout the Spring of 2007 (approximately every 3 weeks).

On 4 different class meetings we designated approximately 1 hour to gather evidence.

At the beginning of each module a pre-test was administered asking both questions about the material and questions about how confident they are in their answers. These tests were conducted using the Classroom Response System (CRS or clickers). The students were given a clicker number that became their private identifier.

The CRS is a wireless response system that allows faculty to request information and for students to respond by using a hand-held response pad to send information to a receiver. The computer records and/or displays the response in a variety of ways. This system allows for both student anonymity as well as quick feedback.

The class was then split into two groups (alternating groups the next session). One group stayed with me and be presented with material through a traditional lecture style (that is my traditional lecture style), while Paige took the other group to another room and the students will be exposed to the same material through an active group exercise.

After 30-45 minutes (depending on the amount of material), the students were brought back together. We then administered a post-test. The post-test questions consisted of both questions from the pre-test (3) and new test questions (3). The multiple choice questions ranged from simple (regurgitation), to complex (applying the concept to a problem, or the best way to design an experiment to address a problem). The students were again asked to rank their confidence on the answer to each question. As extra motivation for them to do well during these modules the students received bonus points for correct post-test questions.

Sample Pre-test and post-test questions can be seen below.

To assess long term learning we administered a practice test (review) and picked out the questions that relate the topics covered in these modules. This practice test was administered during the last class before the final exam. Therefore, the time since each module varied. The long term assessment was not graded and there was no extra motivation for them (no bonus points, ect.).

Finally, we had the student evalulate these sessions. They were asked to consider which learning style they prefer and why. The link to the final evaluation can be seen below.

Sample Pre-test

Sample Post-test

Evaluation Form


To assess student learning from the modules, the scores from the pre-test and post-test were used to calculate normalized gain. Normalized gain was calculated for each individual in the class and then the average normalize gain was calculated for each learning environment. Normalized gain is also referred to as the g-factor.

Where, g=(post test- pre-test)/ (100 - pre-test).

Furthermore, the confidence scores were recorded and the change in confidence score calculated. In our measurements, the students rated their confidence on a scale of 1-5, where 1 was most confident. Therefore the lower the confidence score, the more confident the student.

Student learning styles were assess through an online test they took at the beginning of the semester during laboratory time. This test suggested that a majority of our class were visual learners and only a small percentage were tactile learners.


  • I believe one of the most significant findings was that over time, the normalized gain increased. With each module the student's average normalized gain increased. In
  • the first module the normalized gain for group learning was only 0.2 and for lecture based learning it was 0.5. In the last module, the normalized gain for both the students in the lecture and the students in the problem based learning was almost perfect (1.0). This suggested that either the students learned to be more effective learners as the semester progressed, or the teachers/facilitators learned to be more effective teachers, or both. Moreover, these findings suggest that when instituting a non-conventional teaching method to a classroom, it may take time to see the benefits.

  • Overall, there was no significant difference in the gain of knowledge or the gain of confidence between the two teaching styles.
  • Initially, although the students were not resistant to the idea of group learning, they did not gain as much knowledge from the modules (normalized gain was <0.5). As time progressed, they became more efficient learners in the group setting (normalized gain almost 1.0).
  • The students did have a realistic confidence level with their learning (increased confidence correlated with increased knowledge). There was no increased level of confidence with learning in the group setting compared to the lecture setting.
  • All but one student went into the class and left the class with the same preferred learning style. The one student whose learning style changed as the student with the highest average in the course. They expanded on their change in learning style saying, they preferred not to depend on their classmates.
  • Students surprised me because when they did well on a pre-test (like they did for the pre-test on HIV, with an average pre-test score of 52%), they did not feel they learned as much from the problem based learning module, yet, a large group of students still identified the HIV problem based learning module as their favorite. I think they failed to see what they did learn because they thought they already new the basics of this virus.
  • Long term learning on these modules was very high. There was again no difference between students in the different groups (lecture v. PBL). With the exception of the first module on mitosis and meoisis, the average score on the long term evaluation was >90.
  • There also was no correlation between learning style and which environment they preferred or their performance on the post-test questions.
  • There was a correlation between the final course grade and the student responses to how they learn best...the students with the highest course grades (>88) said they learn best when they identify important concepts for themselves.
  • Results of Testing
    File containing all of the pre-and post-test data. Normalized gain, test scores and confidence scores are represented. (Increased confidenced is a negative number- 1 most confident, 5- least confident)

    Results from Student Evaluations of the Modules
    File containing a summary of the finding of the student evaluations of the modules.

    Looking Ahead

    I was actually surprised that there was not increased learning and confidence in the problem based learning sessions, but I think there is still great value to PBLs and I believe that some of the following factors may have affected our outcomes.

  • Time was a major factor. If more time was allowed for the Problem Based Learning I believe these would be even more effective
  • Learning beyond "knowledge". There is a great value to learning in groups. A group is as strong as its weakest member and so many of these student will be going into settings were decisions are made by a group of consulting doctors or researchers or veterinarians. The value of them learning to cooperate and depend on each other was not evaluated through this study.
  • Finally, utilizing the classroom response system is great for immediate feedback and evaluations, but it is more difficult to ask concept based questions or applicationbased questions using the multiple choice setting. It is possible that the learning in the group setting compared to a lecture setting may change the student's ability to apply knowledge.
  • I plan to continue to use PBLs in my teaching. I believe I will create time way from the class for some of the independent research (and reading ) time which makes these PBL so effective. We found the PBLs worked best when the students had some experiences to draw on, such as vaccinations, but I believe if some of the time pressure is taken away by creating a take home assignment, the benefits will be greater.


    Columbia State Community College has been very interested in our project and they would like us to present on our findings. I do believe that at least two of the faculty will be willing to try to implement PBLs into their courses. At Vanderbilt University, I have discussed my findings with a faculty member at the Medical School where they are currently undergoing a major change in their curriculum to try to incorporate PBLs and group learning. Our findings were very interesting to him and he has suggested we publish them.

    This page was designed as part of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching's Teaching Certificate program.

    Author: Derek Bruff

    Last Updated: December 15, 2006

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