Imperial College London

"Imperial can be European leaders in education" says renowned teaching expert


Teaching expert Dr Cynthia Heiner talks about the benefits of active learning – and what the resulting “energy gap” means for students.

Physics education researcher Dr Heiner addressed an audience at Imperial College London and explained the extensive education research which proves students learn more through active learning.

But this learning process takes more energy than passively absorbing information so Dr Heiner, who worked at the University of British Columbia’s Science Education Initiative, focused on solutions to this “energy gap” experienced by students.

"Active learning strives to encourage all students to engage with the material and with their peers, and thus it hones their critical thinking skills." Dr Cynthia Heiner


After her lecture Dr Heiner, who is now working with Imperial College on our groundbreaking Learning and Teaching Strategy, sat down with Murray MacKay to talk about the transformative impact of an interactive education.

What is active learning?

Active learning is anytime you are encouraged to do something (other than writing notes) during class time. Often instructors will pose a question to the class, but usually only a handful of people respond. Active learning strives to encourage all students to engage with the material and with their peers, and thus it hones their critical thinking skills.

There are several active teaching/learning techniques – based on results from education, psychology, and cognitive science – that help an instructor to engage large numbers of students. Some of these techniques are based on using social media and digital technology, like the Mentimeter voting system used by Imperial, but others just encourage the students and instructors to talk to each other and work together. One common feature to the methods is that they give students the structure and time for thoughtful discussions. Learning is inherently a social activity, and studies show that your sense of belonging to a subject or community affects your competency.

Do you think this is the ‘holy grail’ of teaching? Are you a proponent of other teaching innovations?

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all ‘holy grail’ teaching method, but rather, at its essence, good teaching and learning is about asking good questions and thinking critically about different answers. Long ago this could be accomplished well with an apprentice model. But as numbers of students have grown, we should look at ways to approximate the master-apprentice model in a situation where many students can try things out (simultaneously) and are given timely, specific, and as individual as possible feedback to improve.

So I encourage all innovations to be reviewed/measured to ensure quality and impact on student learning. This covers a wide scope of factors one could improve, ranging from content knowledge and skills, to communication and group work, to sense of belonging and motivation. Essentially the instructor needs to set the goals of what they want their students to accomplish and what learning environment would be best for each cohort and situation. I am not anti-lecture, nor am I for 100% group work all the time. There should be a bit of both (and some things in between) to maximise the benefit for all types of students.

You’ve have experience in working in and speaking with multiple universities across the world – is there any substantial difference in approach between different nationalities?

Yes and no. There are, indeed, cultural influences that cannot be ignored. For instance, I found it was more difficult for students to embrace their mistakes and see them as learning opportunities in my (limited) work in Asia (and with East Asian students elsewhere), where the notion of ‘saving face’ is particularly culturally ingrained. Language barriers have to be considered more at some universities than others, as well as the society structure towards higher education. For instance, in Germany, there is less social mobility in terms of who goes to traditional university versus an applied university; the applied universities are often very good schools, but sometimes undervalued by society. Changing education often means changing prevailing social attitudes as well as teaching methods, which do vary by region.

However, I find that all students that really engage with the new methods rise to the occasion and benefit from the experience. In the end, evolution has programmed all our brains to learn in similar ways.

Do you think it is more challenging to deliver active learning in a STEM environment?

No, but maybe that’s because I’ve got used to it. I think that there is a challenge in the STEM environment as it is traditionally seen as so mathematical and equation-driven that there is no need to discuss concepts. In essence the maths ‘told’ them to do something.

However, as we see in research results, being able to solve a problem analytically does not necessarily correspond/translate to a deeper understanding of how it all works together. This is important for real innovation; it allows one to see beyond the given problem and put together new bits of information. I think in the social sciences, where there is often more than one right answer, there was space allowed for discussion. We need to recognise the importance of this time and space for discussing STEM topics and support it in the STEM education structure as well.

If active learning is delivered comprehensively across Imperial’s curriculum, what benefits should students feel in their day-to-day experience?

Hmm, good question. I think that the students may feel more tired from in-class time, as they do, indeed, have to exert more effort. I would hope, though, that they see more clearly and quickly the connections as to why they are learning topic A and how it connects to topic B. I would also hope that they see why these topics are all relevant to their future in that subject, whether it be in industry or academia or just as informed members of society. They should also recognise what they know and what they don’t know, and feel confident that they have the tools to close their own gaps in their knowledge. Ideally, they learn how to become self-directed, life-long learners.

Bringing it back to the day-to-day, though, I think they will experience more connections and interactions with their fellow students and instructors. It might make it easier to approach others students as well as professors for a question, project or Masters work - or even just to invite them for a coffee and a good discussion. If all of this happens it is possible that Imperial can be European leaders in education. It is important for students to feel connected to their subject and as part of their community. That will definitely enrich the environment in class and on campus (which, conveniently, has been shown to also increase student learning, too).


Murray MacKay

Murray MacKay
Communications and Public Affairs


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