On college campuses right now, the talk is all about antiracism, equity and inclusion. These are good conversations, and long overdue. But to actually achieve these goals, one of the most effective actions will be for professors to stop talking so much — at least in their classrooms.
For almost a millennium, the gold standard in college teaching has been a well-organized lecture, preferably delivered with dramatic flair or sprinkled with witticisms and anecdotes, delivered by a highly respected domain expert. Professors who read their own text or spoke extemporaneously from notes were a major advance from medieval norms, when instructors simply read aloud from books — although some contemporary faculty give that tradition a modern twist by reading aloud from PowerPoint slides.
Unfortunately, the data backing the use of lecture have almost always devolved to personal empiricism: “It worked for me.”
An observation like that might be convincing, except that faculty members aren’t representative of today’s learners, and data show that what worked for them does not work for the vast majority of their students. In fact, recent evidence indicates that lecturing actively harms underrepresented minority and low-income students. But alternative teaching methods can give these students a disproportionate boost.
What evidence backs these claims? Our research group recently analyzed achievement gaps that impact four types of students who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers: 1) women, 2) racial and ethnic minorities other than Asian Americans, 3) students who will be the first in their family to complete a four-year degree, and 4) low-income individuals. We focused on general chemistry, because it is a multiterm course sequence taken by almost all freshmen interested in STEM majors and professions, and we examined data from over 25,000 students who took the courses at the same institution between 2001 and 2016.
The results were heartbreaking. In the first course of the general chemistry series, underrepresented minority (URM) and low-income students averaged final grades that were more than half a point lower than students from overrepresented or higher-income groups. Those achievement gaps meant that URM and low-income students were failing and leaving the chemistry series at much, much higher rates than their peers.
Even more telling, significant grade gaps remained when we controlled for SAT scores and high school GPAs as indices of academic preparation and ability. For example, first-generation students with the same academic credentials as continuing-generation students averaged final grades in the first general chemistry course that were over a tenth of a point lower. None of the four minoritized groups were performing to their ability. Something about such courses was not only perpetuating gaps that arose from students’ circumstances at birth but also exacerbating them.
That something, the evidence suggests, is the lecture.
Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.
Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump — a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.
Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.
Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.
Antiracism? Equity? Inclusion? The data say they can happen in college classrooms, and happen right now.
But will they? The data on achievement gaps are recent, but researchers have known for a long time that active learning and other forms of evidence-based teaching lead to better student outcomes over all. Even though they are supposed to be trained as evidence-based decision makers, faculty still trot out a long list of reasons why they cannot or should not change the way they teach. Lecturing is comfortable. It’s familiar. “It worked for me.” And besides, at most institutions, money and prestige flow to top researchers — not to teachers who create learning environments where all students can thrive.
Colleges and universities are designed to resist change. This trait has helped them endure plagues, world wars, crippling economic crises and massive political dislocations. In response to the national reckoning on race, institutions are releasing statements and forming committees — the academic equivalent of “extending our thoughts and prayers.” However well intentioned, statements and committees won’t solve the racism, equity and inclusion issues in our classrooms. To make real progress, we have to change the way we teach. Now.