PETER COOLBEAR, director of Ako Aotearoa, discusses incentivising established good tertiary teaching practice to help meet government targets for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted to an article by Scott Freeman and his colleagues[1] at the Universities of Washington and Maine. Many thanks to Ben Kennedy from the University of Canterbury for making me aware of this publication.

At the same time as Ben’s email arrived, I was involved in the selection process for this years’ round of Ako Aotearoa’s National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards. It is always exciting to read the nominees portfolios about their wonderful teaching practice and we very much look forward to celebrating the next round of Awards winners at the Beehive on 1 July.

All this set me thinking about how we achieve evidence-informed change in tertiary teaching. First of all, we need the evidence, but then we need to incentivise the changes in practice that evidence indicates and then we need the professional development support to help tertiary teachers make the necessary changes to enhance their practice.

Freeman and his colleagues have written what I think is an exceptional paper. They report the biggest meta-analysis yet on the impact of active learning on student success in science, engineering, and mathematics. The authors demonstrate unequivocally that students in STEM courses do better if there is a component of active learning in their classes versus those who attend classes based entirely on a traditional lecture format. They undertook a highly sophisticated meta-analysis across a total of 225 studies. On average, course failure rates decreased from 34 per cent to 22 per cent where there was a component of active learning (based on 67 studies that presented this data).

Across 158 studies providing data on examination performance, students’ grades increased by 6 per cent (e.g. sufficient to move a B grade performance to a B+ grade).

Another interesting point about the study is that the authors were quite liberal in both their definitions of what constituted active learning and the quantum of class time required. No restrictions were placed on the type of active learning strategies employed and the quantum of class time involved in these activities was as low as 10-15 per cent of class time. It’s all about keeping students actively thinking about the subject matter, making their own connections, and structuring their own understandings.

Of course, none of this is really new. Our best teachers all use active learning strategies of one kind or another to engage students. There is no magic bullet for all this: different things work at different times for different learners. The best of the best teachers continually make evidence-informed judgements about how to keep modifying their practice to enhance learner achievement.

The question then becomes what about the rest? Why do so many teachers of STEM subjects still rely so much on formal lectures with minimal interaction to get the information across to students who are expected to sit passively for 50 minutes and “soak it all up” unless those students are brave enough to ask the odd question?

We have a body of evidence that irrefutably supports active learning strategies; we already have exemplar practitioners who are doing it as well as anywhere else in the world, yet our culture of teacher autonomy allows that evidence to be ignored as a systematic driver of practice change. It’s ironic that teaching practice within these disciplines often fails to model the fundamental tenets on which the discipline is based.

One of government’s priorities is to increase the number of STEM graduates in New Zealand. The US has similar priorities and Freeman and his colleagues suggest that enhancing student success rates could go some way to supporting the improvement of retention rates. This in turn could make a major contribution to reaching national targets for STEM graduates in the States.

TEC makes it a condition of funding at Levels 1 and 2 that teaching staff have the capability to embed literacy and numeracy within their programmes: we know it is critical to student success. Why not take an equivalent step for STEM subjects? Why not make it a condition of funding STEM programmes that there is a minimum component of active learning in formal class time?

[1] Freeman S. et al. (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published ahead of print May 12, 2014, Accessed from:


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