Carl Wieman on Active Learning: Is It Really Better than Traditional Lecturing?

Carl Wieman on Active Learning: Is It Really Better than Traditional Lecturing?

Headshot, smiling light-skinned male, dark hair, glasses, in Stanford arcadeCarl Wieman knows active learning well. Developing new teaching methods, assessing others’, and conducting scholarly research on his own teaching, Wieman has long been a pioneer in the field and tireless advocate for it.

So when the journal PNAS recently published a new paper on active learning, Scientific American’s Anna Kuchment knew who to ask for comment. In the paper, Scott Freeman of the University of Washington in Seattle reviewed 225 studies and found evidence that active learning results in better student learning than traditional lecturing.

Kuchment interviewed Wieman in her blog post Stop Lecturing Me (In College Science!) of May 21, 2014.  Wieman, a Nobel laureate in Physics, founder of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, and now holding joint appointments in physics and education at Stanford, made several points clear.

Key points about active learning

  1. Designing a course that includes active learning requires more content knowledge, not less, than teaching in the classic lecture mode. It’s not a cop out or losing the importance of expertise by the faculty.
  2. If you use active learning techniques, you’re still telling students things; but it’s in response to their questions, their needs to solve a problem, and so they learn much more from it.
  3. You have to work hard to use active learning in your class. You must carefully structure problems and activities to get them to think like a scientist, mathematician, etc.
  4. Wieman wants universities to collect data on how much active learning teaching is being used in their courses. If they did that, prospective students could tell where they would get the best teaching, and universities would be motivated to adopt the most effective teaching methods.

For more, read Kuchment’s whole article. And Wieman himself has written a commentary on Freeman’s paper that is scheduled to appear in PNAS next week: watch for it!

See Also

Teaching Commons active learning resources:

Promoting Active Learning

Learning Activities

Previous blog posts from Wieman in the Teaching Talk blog:

Planning to start your course with a review lecture? Think again

Turn an exam into a learning experience with two-stage exams


On May 23, this commentary piece by Carl Wieman appeared in Scientific American. He argues persuasively that traditional lecturing can no longer be considered the standard of good teaching.