UW News

October 5, 2021

Education should focus on ‘heads and hearts,’ UW researcher says

UW News

A college classroom with students seated in a lecture hall.

A class on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus.University of Washington

With K-12 schools, colleges and universities across the country reconvening this autumn for in-person instruction — many after more than a year of remote or hybrid learning — some educators are calling for teachers to embrace more “active learning” methods in the classroom. These methods differ from traditional lecture formats by engaging students with in-class tasks like partner discussions to learn subject matter and reinforce core concepts. In studies, many active learning methods improve grades and student knowledge.

A person looking into the camera and smiling

Elli TheobaldUniversity of Washington

In a Policy Forum piece published Oct. 1 in Science, a group led by Nesra Yannier at Carnegie Mellon University is advocating for a fresh look at active learning and its potential as classrooms and lecture halls again fill with students. Two co-authors from the University of Washington’s Department of Biology — assistant teaching professor Elli Theobald and lecturer emeritus Scott Freeman — highlight the role that active learning methods have in promoting equity. In STEM education, active learning methods can eliminate inequities for students from underrepresented backgrounds, something Theobald and Freeman have studied as part of the UW’s Biology Education Research Group.

Theobald sat down with UW News to talk about the current state of active learning methods, research into their effectiveness and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: You teach here at the UW. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected teaching at colleges and universities?

ET: Oh, it’s had so many effects. There has been so much disruption — some that is easily recognized, and some that isn’t. For instance, people are touting that online learning is more accessible. And on the one hand, it is. For example, there’s no commute for students. But on the other hand, there are disadvantages in terms of accessibility. Students need quiet, private spaces that are free from distraction and a good internet connection. But with remote learning, the distractions from other parts of their lives become part of their “classroom.”

And that’s just considering logistics and practicality. What has really suffered in the pandemic is the community that students experience in the classroom. I think a lot of research in active learning methods has told us that those communities — those connections — are central to learning. In our piece, we try to drive home that students need each other. They need to learn from each other. And students need to understand that they’re not alone in the learning process. A lot of that is lost online.

What messages are you trying to send with this new article?

ET: I think the message we’re trying to send centers on what I and a ton of others are feeling right now. We’re going back to in-person teaching and learning. What will that look like? The group of us who came together to write this policy forum piece are all people who have made education research our life’s work. We think this return to in-person instruction is an opportunity to discuss and reflect. Going back to in-person instruction shouldn’t mean just going back to pre-pandemic teaching methods. What could be done better?

What are some active learning methods used today?

ET: Well, it really depends on what type of classroom or learning environment you’re talking about — whether K-12 or undergraduate.

Related coverage:

Sept. 2, 2020: “OPINION: Is lecturing racist?” (Inside Higher Ed, Scott Freeman and Elli Theobald)

For me, I teach at the undergraduate level. The methods you can employ there can take many forms: Turn to your neighbor and discuss this concept for a few minutes, or complete a short, in-class worksheet that reinforces a key concept.

We’re designing these active learning methods around the future assessments for course performance. They’re opportunities to practice. When you practice a musical instrument, you’re rehearsing for a performance later. Or when you practice a sport, it’s for a game later. Whatever the form, think of these active learning methods as a practice for the exams, projects and presentations that students can use to demonstrate how well they know the subject matter.

Which educational settings employ active learning methods?

ET: In general, higher education — particularly STEM education — is just a little bit behind K-12 in adopting active learning, I think. Before coming to UW, I worked as a middle and high school teacher, and active learning is how I was taught to teach. I couldn’t dream of walking into a class and just lecturing at my students. I would’ve been eaten alive.

In K-12 settings, I think there’s definitely value seen in active learning, and there has been a lot of research backing up the effectiveness of active learning in these settings. And I think in higher education settings, recent research backs up its effectiveness as well in improving learning outcomes, boosting grades and reducing inequities in student outcomes.

Could active learning methods be improved?

ET: Oh yes. In any teaching method, there is always room to improve. Studies show that active learning improves learning outcomes, but there’s also a lot of variation in the results. Why is that?

Well, one new focus as a potential answer is that you have to consider hearts as well as minds when teaching: Getting away from lectures and incorporating active learning will engage minds, but you can’t just have active learning alone. You also need to foster a sense of psychosocial “comfort” in the classroom.

How do you create this sense of psychosocial comfort?

ET: This is one of our avenues of active investigation! We’re exploring the hypothesis that students need this sense of psychosocial safety — knowing, for example, that their professor cares deeply about their success. What we’re trying to emphasize in the Science piece is that, by this theory, you need to do both: Students learn best in the types of collaborative environments that active learning methods can provide, and you also need to create an environment where students feel supported and feel that instructors care deeply about their success.

More research must be done to test this “heads and hearts” hypothesis, but we believe this could be key to bringing equity into STEM undergraduate education. It could go a long way toward improving equity in higher education classrooms.

For more information, contact Theobald at ellij@uw.edu.