How to Increase Student Performance with Active Learning

Female Dentist Earning a Postgraduate Dental Degree Online

In this installment of our series on effective online teaching, we will cover the basics of creating a recorded interactive lecture and an interactive course manual. In subsequent articles, we will explore the technology needed to do this.

Our goal is to go well beyond a simple video recording of an instructor talking to a class or a word document an instructor writes to supplement his or her course and then distributes to the students with a mandate to read it. Instead, I hope to show you how to create an interactive recording of your thoughts and a course document that student will want to watch and read.

When you really try to make your lecture content and your course manual an “interactive eLearning experience.” By the end of the course I hope you see that what you learn in this initial set of lectures can be applied to almost any situation where you want to teach someone in an asynchronous manner and yet keep them engaged and motivated.

Lectures Are Ineffective

The “lectures are ineffective” pronouncement comes from a variety of places, but the most convincing is an really thorough meta-analysis done in 2014 by Freeman and colleagues titled, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (PNAS June 10, 2014 111 (23) 8410-8415).

The study was a meta-analysis of 225 studies on teaching methods that used exam scores and failure rates from courses involved in STEM topics among undergraduates. The researchers compared lecturing and active learning styles, and analyzed the effect of class size for each method in each discipline.


  1. Effect sizes were significantly difference between 2 methods.
  2. Active learning had increase of 0.47 SDs on exams (n=158).
  3. Odds ratio for failing was 1.95 for traditional lecturing (n=67)

Active learning appears more effective overall but most effective in small (n ≤ 50) classes. This data raises the question about whether we should use traditional lecturing as a teaching methodology.

In other words, students in traditional lecture courses were 1.5X more likely to fail. In the graphic of the meta-analysis below, the data (B) shows that Active learning reduced failure rates by over 10%!

Chart Showing the Decrease in Failure Rate In Undergraduate STEM Courses in Classrooms that Use Active Learning

Effect sizes by discipline. (A) Data on examination scores, concept inventories, or other assessments. (B) Data on failure rates. Numbers below data points indicate the number of independent studies; horizontal lines are 95% confidence intervals.

Using a Flipped Classroom for Active Learning

The Freeman et al article essentially offers a suggestion on what to do, namely engage in Active Learning! An excellent example of a School that followed up on this idea comes from the Vermont Medical School (UVM). This school choose to eliminate all lectures and now only uses active learning style educational methods for their medical student classes.

The faculty at UVM create an active learning classroom environment by using a flipped classroom. Students learn about the subject before they get there, and in class they work in groups solving problems. You remember better and longer the problems you solve!

In large classes (~100 people) students are broken up in to groups of about 6 students and they are given a task to work on based on material that was sent to the students before they assembled for this class. There is usually only one or two faculty in the course. Of course, medical students are among the most competitive and therefore probably compliant to what the instructor is asking of them. This approach may not work as well in other setting with other students and more faculty may be needed.

Since many of us have transitioned to teaching online right now, Zoom Breakout Rooms are a great way to use a flipped classroom approach and guide group problem-solving in a digital-first classroom.

How to Teach Interactively

F is for Focused Lectures - Online Teaching Strategies for Postgraduate Dentistry Program and Teledentistry

In a recent article we explained five steps to teaching online effectively. The first letter, “F,” stands for “focused, short, up to date lecture.” I know I said they were dead, but give me a little time to explain what interactive eLearning experiences are and are not!

Reduce Cognitive Overload

The reason why 50 or 60-minute powerpoint-based lectures don’t work well is because of “cognitive overload.” In the early 1980s, researchers found that people suffer from cognitive overload, and is the basis for why “TED Talks” have a maximum length of 18 minutes.

Simply put, information acts like weights: the more you pile on, the more likely you are to drop everything. A 5-minute microlearning lecture produces a relatively small amount of cognitive backlog, while a 30-minute lecture produces a relatively large amount.

Now, recording a lecture does not make it inherently better than a standard lecture, but if you make it interactive you engage every student (which can’t be done in a large lecture hall), and it is certainly more convenient for the students to view! When you create lecture recordings there are some things you should and shouldn’t do.

Asynchronous Interactive lectures should not have links to external materials that are broken or quiz questions/hotspots that are not relevant to the topic. Asynchronous Interactive lectures should have links to some of the massive freely accessible documents and media (YouTube; Podcasts; Vlogs; Recorded Webinars) and pop-up questions that reinforce what the student really needs to know.

Finally it is suggested that you include a set of deep thought questions for discussion at follow-up video conference! Examples below!

Recap: 4 Ways to Create Interactive eLearning Experiences

  1. Record an active learning lecture using TED talk format (~18 min)
  2. Regularly update content by checking google and pub-med for new ideas, trends and even crazy stuff (must be evidence based)
  3. Put links in your lectures to helpful, freely-accessible documents and media (e.g. YouTube, podcasts; Vlogs, recorded webinars)
  4. Embed questions and thoughtful discussion points inside your video

Examples of Embedded eLearning Questions

I typically ask students to summarize (no more than 300 words) what they learn from the resource I suggest and post them to the Blackboard Discussion Board. The best responses look at more than the single suggested resource to formulate your answer! Students are awarded bonus points for good comments on other student’s reflections.

  • Read and summarize what exactly is cognitive overload and does it differ for different age groups?
  • Read and summarize why the Freeman paper was controversial? Did anyone dispute these results and what was their argument?
  • Read and summarize follow-ups to the Vermont Medical School lecture dropping experiment (i.e. does it work)?

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