COVID-19 remote learning is an opportunity to adopt active learning in STEM


Graphic showing academic items - pens, paper, microscpe etc.

Research published in Cell suggests online teaching presents an opportunity to develop and integrate new active learning approaches in STEM.

The research team, led by Dr Stefano Sandrone and Dr Gregory Scott from Imperial College with colleagues from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, advocate a global adoption of active learning in STEM education. Integrating active learning tools into teaching practice has the potential to transform long-term educational practice in-person and online as well as improving standards of educational delivery. 

An active learning-powered STEM education offers opportunities to engage the learners and train them in an interactive, practical way. Examples of active learning tools are preparing and presenting a scientific poster, writing an abstract, analysing experimental data, writing reports or conducting public engagement activities.  

Increased performance 

For many centuries, the lecture has been the teaching delivery method of choice for undergraduate and graduate education. However, compared to lectures, active learning increases students’ performance across disciplines, irrespective of the course types, levels and class sizes. It also promotes equity in higher education as it reportedly brings remarkable benefits to students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented minorities. 

Dr Stefano SandroneLead researcher Dr Stefano Sandrone, neuroscientist and Senior Teaching Fellow from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial said: “STEM educators have weathered the rapid shift to delivering courses online due to COVID-19. We argue that educators should make a permanent shift to a teaching delivery, whether online or in-person, which puts active learning at its centre. Integrating active learning can make the learning journey more authentic and more inspiring.” 

Co-lead researcher Dr Gregory Scott, Academic Clinical Lecturer from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial said: “Educators’ face-to-face time with students can have a greater impact than a series of slides shared in the classroom. Focusing on active learning, for example via small group or case-based activities, can be more engaging for students and educators alike." 

A suite of teaching approaches 

The researchers champion the use of active learning tools across the higher education sector as part of a suite of teaching approaches, for example, incorporating it into traditional lectures by ensuring there are periods of audience interaction. Within an online environment, this can include live polling and live problem solving with real data. Group-learning and laboratory exercises can be delivered online through virtual rooms in Teams, Zoom or online platforms such as LabXchange, which allow students to perform virtual simulations. 

According to the team, ensuring that students understand the benefits and real-life applications of active learning is important when integrating it into teaching. One benefit of active learning is that it helps to foster community, something which students might find harder to build during online teaching.  

Active learning-based STEM education for in-person and online learning by Stefano Sandrone, Gregory Scott, William J. Anderson and Kiran Musunuru is published in Cell


Sarah Saxton

Sarah Saxton
Communications Division


See more tags