New Perspectives in Science Education

Edition 13

Accepted Abstracts

Teaching to Increase University Student Engagement: Is Active Learning Always the answer?

Naomi Rintoul, Canterbury Christ Church University (United Kingdom)


There is mounting evidence to suggest that traditional lecturing styles (consisting mostly or entirely of verbal presentation by the lecturer) are a relatively ineffective pedagogical approach for promoting understanding of concepts, engagement with teaching and applying new information to problems. Disengaged students take a surface approach to learning through taking notes, focusing on specific facts and accepting those. Deep learning experiences such as problem-based or enquiry-based learning promote student engagement which leads to improved learning, retention and understanding of curricular relevance, as well as increased self-confidence and motivation. Engagement is higher when the lecturer provides a comfortable learning environment where students are able to freely take part in academic discussion.

The benefits of deep learning experiences are of particular importance to students who go on to a career in biology or a related discipline, as they will be expected to demonstrate problem solving capabilities rather than to recall facts. Collaborative learning is important since students are likely to work more efficiently as members of a team. In a university aiming to be accessible for a diverse student community, a benefit of strong student engagement is that this widens participation, benefitting ‘non-traditional’ students and thus improving equality and social justice.

In order to evaluate various teaching approaches, undergraduate students were given a traditionalist approach to learning for the first hour of each session. This was followed by hour-long sessions using techniques aimed at promoting active learning, including collaborative learning, problem-based learning and enquiry-based learning. The effectiveness of each approach was analysed using questionnaires and focus groups. In this study, pedagogic practice was deemed effective when students stated that the session had increased motivation, self-confidence, understanding, ability to work with others, comfort, and/or engagement.

The results of this study show a strong relationship between the level of engagement – both with student and lecturer and between student peers – and the aforementioned factors relating to ‘effective pedagogic practice’. However, whilst sessions with significant engagement benefitted the majority of students and widened participation, a diverse approach to teaching is necessary in order to satisfy the needs of the student body as an entirety. Thus, there must be opportunities for autonomous and active learning styles in order to develop a motivated, confident and successful student. Furthermore, traditional pedagogic approach may be required to convey key information before this can be reinforced with active learning.

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