A group of college students sit together on a long wooden bench.

An Active Learning Framework for Effective Undergraduate STEM Education

Associate Professor Doug Lombardi

Alternative instructional strategies for teaching STEM subjects have grown in recent years. One promising technique is “active learning,” which encourages students’ engagement in learning. Some research shows that the strategy can lead to higher test scores and more equitable outcomes for underrepresented students in STEM fields.

In the most recent issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest—a prestigious psychology journal—University of Maryland College of Education researcher Doug Lombardi and colleagues work to clarify and define the active learning construct. The researchers, from a variety of STEM disciplines, summarize current thinking on STEM learning and highlight actionable steps to facilitate more productive practices and research in undergraduate STEM education.

“Because of the vagaries of the term ‘active learning,’ my colleagues and I wanted to provide a coherent and actionable concept of active learning that incorporates a wide array of research disciplines,” Dr. Lombardi said in a press release by the Association for Psychological Science.  “Our goal was to provide a clear picture of active learning and offer guidance on research and practice.”

The researchers addressed several topics related to active learning, such as whether active learning is optimal for certain situations but not others and whether traditional STEM lecturing has inherent flaws. Based on the findings, the team developed a framework for active learning that could help students deepen understanding of STEM topics. As active agents of learning, students work with peers to make sense of many STEM areas, including domain practices and scientific models. The interdisciplinary study offers a way forward for educators and researchers in the STEM fields.

“Learners should be active agents during instruction, where social construction of meaning plays a key role for many learners, above and beyond the individual cognitive processes involved in learning,” Dr. Lombardi stressed as the framework’s cornerstone. “Traditional lecture relies mostly on the individual for sense making, which may privilege fewer learners.”

Doug Lombardi is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology in the College of Education.