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Despite lack of engagement, STEM classes are usually taught using lectures


Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Michigan and the founder of LectureTools, now known as Echo360, stands in front of one of his lecture classes. Photo courtesy of Perry Samson.

Science, technology, engineering and math classes are mostly taught using lectures, according to a new study. However, studies have shown lectures are less effective than other methods of teaching, so UNC and other universities are rethinking how to teach STEM classes in order to better engage students. 

Marilyne Stains, one of the authors of the study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the motivation for performing the study was the lack of understanding of what is going on in STEM classrooms around the country. 

“It was really to try to understand what’s happening out there,” Stains said. “We know there is a movement toward transforming STEM teaching, but is it really happening?”

Stains said most studies on this topic focus on one instructional practice or one institution, and there are very few studies that give a sense of what is happening nationwide. 

To perform the study, Stains and her colleagues observed over 2,000 STEM classes and over 500 STEM faculty. They identified 12 common teaching behaviors that occurred in STEM classrooms, and they recorded which of those behaviors was being displayed at two minute intervals throughout the class. Based on their observations, they identified three broad instructional styles: didactic, interactive and student-centered. 

“We found that the didactic style was dominant,” Stains said. “It doesn't matter if you’re in a small classroom, a large classroom, if you’re in an amphitheater style classroom or a room with moveable desks, lecture is still going to dominate. And it dominates across the undergraduate curriculum.”

Mariah Meador, a UNC sophomore majoring in chemistry, said she has taken four STEM classes at UNC so far, and all of them have been lecture style classes. 

“I didn’t really enjoy active learning, but I do enjoy the peer interaction,” Meador said. “Sometimes I’m intimidated to ask the professor for help or to clarify any questions in a lecture setting, but with active learning it alleviates some of that tension.”

Bob Duronio, a professor of biology at UNC, said he team-teaches two classes with another professor, Mark Peifer. Duronio said they combine traditional lectures, discussions of scientific papers and individually researched projects in those classes. 

“We’re aware that standard lecture-based class periods are probably the least effective at learning,” he said. “So we’re trying to move away from that in different ways.”

UNC is taking action to make STEM classes more engaging and effective. The Association of American Universities said on its website that UNC has created several STEM Education Initiatives. 

“UNC-CH is creating a support framework to facilitate the implementation of evidence-based teaching practices in large courses that have traditionally been taught by the lecture method,” the AAU’s website said. 

Classes that are taught using a method besides lectures and incorporating active learning produce higher grades and a deeper understanding of the topic, Stains said.

“You gain all around,” she said. “You understand the topic, you’re interested in it and usually that means you achieve better in the course.”

Duronio said he has not measured student success quantitatively, but he said he has some anecdotal evidence that it is more effective to use other teaching methods besides lectures. 

“I think my interaction with students is more fulfilling and better when we do these group discussions and we’re going over figures,” he said. “I can sit with a small number of students, and it’s very much more of a conversation and a dialogue than me standing up and lecturing.”

Meador said she would like to see more Q&A style lectures in STEM classes. 

“Sometimes in STEM, it’s really intimidating to ask questions,” she said. “That’s one plus of active learning: You’re encouraged to ask questions.”


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