03 February 2023
Active learning narrows performance gap between students
Published online 6 December 2022
Outcomes improved when undergraduate physics students in Oman became actively involved in the learning process.
A study by physicists at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in Oman suggests that significant benefits could be gained by implementing active learning, especially with non-native English speakers studying sciences in English.
The concept of active learning was introduced in the late 1990s. It relies on students seeking out knowledge and engaging in the course material, rather than passively receiving information. It moves away from lecture-centred teaching and towards discussions, peer tutoring, case studies and field visits.
The study explored the impact of active learning on student performance and perception of education quality, in addition to changes in achievement gaps between students; metrics that were not assessed together in previous studies.
“Similar studies have also mainly reported the impact on native speakers in developed countries,” says SQU astrophysicist, Alaa Ibrahim. “We observed a reduction of failure that is 1.7 times larger than that observed among students in developed countries.”
The scientists applied the approach on 2,145 students enrolled in five different physics and astronomy introductory, intermediate and advanced courses at SQU. They found that it improved student performance by 9% and their perception of learning quality by 25%. It also reduced failure rate to a third compared to traditional learning classes, and narrowed the gap between top and bottom quartiles by 17%.
“The paper used a robust design to examine the difference in student performance between active and traditional lecture courses,” explains Tessa Marie Andrews, associate professor of genetics at the University of Georgia, US, who was not involved in the study but has published research on active learning. “The results echo those from studies in other countries and show the potential of transforming teaching to better serve students, and the countries in which they will join the workforce.”
The researchers in Oman relied on open-access resources from the University of Minnesota and the University of Colorado to assess the merits of active learning in limited-resource settings.
“Active learning is versatile and adaptable to suit diverse settings, environments and teaching styles. Part of this is to choose viable and ubiquitous resources edited for local relevance,” says Ibrahim.
Active learning techniques can be implemented with minimal resources using free-to-use platforms like Google Classroom, but the key, say the researchers, is to get faculty on board to implement it early on, especially younger faculty members.
The researchers studied previous experiences in teaching physics to identify available tools, resources and best practices, and then adapt them to the SQU context. Training sessions were then organized for faculty members, teaching programmes were tweaked, and weekly follow-up meetings dealt with issues faced during implementation. The experiment focused on first-year physics courses, then introduced second and third-year courses once the instructors gained experience with the methodology.
Ibrahim, A.I. et al. Simultaneous multidimensional impact of active learning revealed in a first implementation in the MENA region. PNAS https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2108666119 (2022).