A recent meta-analysis of 225 STEM education studies in PNAS found that active learning increases scores on standardized examinations by about half a standard deviation (equal to about half a letter grade), and reduces the number of students failing the class by about a third.
Active learning also has been found to reduce the number of students switching out of their STEM major (e.g, Watkins and Mazur, 2013).
Eric Mazur was a very popular Harvard physics professor using only lecture in his courses. After discovering that his students were failing a standardized conceptual test of Newtonian mechanics, he implemented peer instruction, and they started doing much better. Hear his story in this engaging talk. But as Mazur likes to say, the plural of anecdote is not data, so this seminal 1998 meta-analysis by Richard R. Hake analyzed thousands of students and found more than a doubling of (normalized) student learning in physics classrooms using active learning.
Highly structured interactive classes reduce achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students (Haak et al., Science, 2011). They have also been found to reduce the gender gap (e.g., Lorenzo et al., 2006), but a review paper (Madsen et al., 2013) found that subsequent studies had variable results, so it is still difficult to isolate a single factor in the gender gap.
I've included other ways of encouraging under-represented minorities here.
Implementing active learning can be easy and fun (but still takes initial work)
Active learning does take work, but can be relatively easy to implement in a basic form.
The easiest thing to do is use in-class exercises that students discuss with their peers. Pick an example you already work out in class and have the students work it out instead, while circulating through the classroom. While increasing actual learning, this also generally reduces instructor preparation time, because students spend more class time interacting with each other and actively learning.
Use clickers. Clickers help you identify and work through students' misconceptions, help you check if students are following what you have discussed so far before moving on to a more complex topic, and they help students identify their own lack of understanding, among many other benefits.
Integrating clickers does require some up-front investment of time, but using active learning cuts down on the amount of 'formal' lecture time, so if you are designing a new class, it may reduce the time you spend preparing your lectures.
As long as you properly explain why you are using clickers (or another active learning tool), and don’t just use it to force attendance, students are generally favorable about clickers.
If clickers are not available, you can also print colored and/or labeled sheets of paper that students can fold twice to then display their answer when requested. Here is more information on implementing this method.
If using either clickers or flashcards, use this evidence-based flowchart (Vickrey et al., 2015) as a guide for implementation.
Key Findings in Physics Education Research
What is the best way to teach physics? There is no single answer, but decades of Physics Education Research have identified characteristics that are more effective. The American Association of Physics Teachers has created an NSF-funded website that summarizes evidence-based physics education techniques, searchable by course format. I integrate at least the top six techniques listed there, which all serve to increase the amount of active learning in my classroom.
Active learning is the idea that students should be learning (analyzing, questioning, and responding) while in class, with a recent Nature Feature News article summarizing the benefits. Whereas traditional lectures lead to around 25% fractional learning gains, the integration of active learning can dramatically increase learning gains, decrease failure and improve under-represented minority retention in science. Some key education research is summarized below, and a recent New York Times article describes many of the techniques I also use in my classroom.
Presentation to Southern California American Association of Physics Teachers Spring 2015 Meeting
4. To conduct a more thorough course transformation,