Should we be done with the debate?

This past week, I had an opportunity to hear Justin Reich (MIT Teaching Labs Researcher) speak for the second time and he referenced a white paper called: “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”. His interpretation of the paper was that the data indicated that “it is almost unethical to use lecturing in a control group when comparing with active learning.” It reminded me of a recent article I wrote inspired by the book, Teaching Minds by Robert Schank.

While you can access the entire 6-page paper here to come up with your own interpretations, I’ve quoted the abstract from the paper below, for your convenience:


The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has called for a 33% increase in the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) bachelor’s degrees completed per year and recommended adoption of empirically validated teaching practices as critical to achieving that goal. The studies analyzed here document that active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning. The analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.


To test the hypothesis that lecturing maximizes learning and course performance, we metaanalyzed 225 studies that reported data on examination scores or failure rates when comparing student performance in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses under traditional lecturing versus active learning. The effect sizes indicate that on average, student performance on examinations and concept inventories increased by 0.47 SDs under active learning (n = 158 studies), and that the odds ratio for failing was 1.95 under traditional lecturing (n = 67 studies). These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning. Heterogeneity analyses indicated that both results hold across the STEM disciplines, that active learning increases scores on concept inventories more than on course examinations, and that active learning appears effective across all class sizes—although the greatest effects are in small (n ≤ 50) classes. Trim and fill analyses and fail-safe ncalculations suggest that the results are not due to publication bias. The results also appear robust to variation in the methodological rigor of the included studies, based on the quality of controls over student quality and instructor identity. This is the largest and most comprehensive metaanalysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date. The results raise questions about the continued use of traditional lecturing as a control in research studies, and support active learning as the preferred, empirically validated teaching practice in regular classrooms.

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth.

Big Questions

Two big questions that were circling in my head for a long time included:

  1. What does “good” active learning look like in mathematics?
  2. How can I make progress to move away from a lecture-based approach without completely overwhelming myself?

Thankfully, as I reflected on these questions for years as I was teaching in the classroom, I started to document what I was doing when lessons went well and what was different when they flopped.

As I began to organize these ideas, I eventually teammed up with Jon Orr to come up with what we call the Make Math Moments 3-Part Framework and it turns out that there is a lot to learn and practice to effectively engage our students and fuel their sense making.

You can learn about the 3-Part Framework by reading our Complete Guide here.

If you’re stuck teaching in a distance learning or blended model and think that active learning can’t work, be sure to check out our Make Math Moments From A Distance post to see how you can still spark student curiosity, fuel their sense making, and ignite your teacher moves.

Has this research sparked any questions in your head? I would love to hear about them if you’re willing to share!