Research Q&A with Ronald Martella: Active Learning vs Lecture

Ronald Martella, Ph.D.

1. How would you describe the main idea or main takeaway from your most recent research or creative work to someone outside your field?

Active learning is a popular approach to teaching large STEM college courses and often involves reducing or eliminating lecture in favor of class activities. Unfortunately, we found through our systematic review of the literature that the studies on active learning have many weaknesses methodologically, making it difficult to draw strong and specific conclusions about how best to structure STEM courses. Active learning is likely an important component of effective instruction but in isolation is not necessarily the most effective way to encourage cognitive engagement. Rather, a combination of lecture and practice/extension activities may be the key to maximizing student performance. However, more targeted and rigorous research is needed to understand the critical variables for student success.

2. What is the key paper or author/performer who has most inspired your recent research/creative work?

Inspiration came from the Freeman et al. (2014) meta-analysis on active learning as well as Richard Mayer and his 2004 paper discussing the two dimensions of active learning (behavioral activity and cognitive activity). The Freeman et al. meta-analysis is often used as justification for course transformations at the course level and larger university initiative level and as such, it is critical to examine the rigor of studies on which the meta-analysis is based.

3. How do you see this research/creative piece contributing to new insights in the field/sparking conversation?

Our article has sparked widespread interest as evidenced by the new article in the Chronicle for Higher Education and on social media. Our findings could help direct new research that is more rigorous and nuanced to provide more specific recommendations on how to sequence instruction within a course to promote student learning. Our article also moves away from the false dichotomy between lecture and active learning and questions whether traditional lecture is always less effective for student learning than active learning approaches.

4. Can you describe the contributions of co-authors or collaborators who were essential to the success of this project?    

Dr. Amedee Martella, an NSF psychology post doctoral research fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara, was the lead author on this paper and led the project as a whole. She is currently seeking a faculty position. This project was an opportunity to combine my area of expertise in research methodology with my daughter’s expertise in the learning sciences and active learning.

Prof. Jane Yatcilla is a libraries faculty member at Purdue University and was pivotal in conducting our literature searches. Our other co-authors aided in coding our large base of articles and are currently graduate students at several universities.

5. What impact do you hope this work makes?

We hope this article furthers methodologically rigorous research on how to combine lecture and active learning approaches and moves people away from pitting the two against one another.

6. What is on deck for you as you get started on your next project?

We are interested in examining the flipped class literature and are currently working on a project related to the rigor of studies on immersive virtual reality in education.

7. Where and when do you feel you are the most productive/creative/inspired?

I feel most creative and inspired when working with other researchers and graduate students on important projects.

Read more about Martella’s work, highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education.