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Many college students see teaching style as a barrier to their success, but which class formats and active learning methods do they prefer?
In a Student Voice Pulse survey of 1,250 undergraduates, conducted in March and released today from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, the largest share of students say they typically learn and retain information best in an interactive lecture—somewhere between a traditional lecture and a high-intensity active learning environment. Regarding active learning strategies, students find case studies particularly helpful, followed by small-group discussions and game-based learning.
Asked which class format they typically learn and retain information best in, students have mixed responses. Five key takeaways:
- More than a third of students say they learn best through interactive lectures, in which the professor breaks at least once for students to complete a specific learning task related to the material. This preference for low-to-moderate-intensity active learning is relatively consistent across demographics and subgroups. But arts and humanities students (n=129) are significantly less likely than their peers in the social sciences (n=539) and natural sciences (n=630) to choose interactive lectures (22 percent).
- A quarter of students prefer traditional lectures, making these the No. 2 choice for class format. This is somewhat surprising, given that students tend to learn more during active learning than during professor-centered lectures. Yet it’s unsurprising in light of research showing that students underestimate what they’ve absorbed via active learning. Traditional lectures are especially popular among men in the survey (n=302), at 32 percent, compared to 22 percent of women (n=839). Arts and humanities students also prefer traditional lectures (32 percent) to interactive lectures. Another finding: Straight students (n=853) are significantly more likely than their LGBTQIA+ peers (n=364) to say they prefer traditional lectures, at 29 percent versus 19 percent, respectively. And students with learning disabilities or related conditions (n=278) are less likely to choose traditional lectures than are students without these conditions, at 22 percent versus 27 percent.
- Nearly a quarter of students prefer active learning-heavy classes. In this format, which has been found to be especially effective at closing achievement gaps, a professor may lecture briefly but spends most of the class facilitating individual or group activities related to course content. More women prefer this format than men: one in four versus one in five, respectively. Active learning-heavy class format is least popular among natural sciences students, at 20 percent, compared to 27 percent of arts and humanities students and 26 percent of social sciences students. By race, White and Black students are most likely to prefer this format, at about one in four compared to about one in five for Hispanic students and less than one in five for Asian students.
- Not quite one in 10 students (7 percent) prefers a lab format. This number is slightly elevated (11 percent) among students with learning disabilities and related conditions.
- One in 20 of students prefers the traditional, discussion-based seminar, though the share is 13 percent for arts and humanities students.
Active Learning Strategies
Students find some common active learning strategies more helpful than others for learning and retaining information.
- Case studies. Half of students over all find helpful case studies that connect course content to real-world problems. This is elevated among social sciences students, at 57 percent, and lower among Republican-leaning students (n=133), at 42 percent.
- Small-group discussions. More than third of students over all like small-group discussions, as do half of Republican-leaning students, a third of Democratic-leaning students (n=466) and two in five Independents (n=618). Looking at this preference by race, 41 percent of white students prefer small-group discussions, compared to 32 percent of Asian students, 30 percent of Black students and 35 percent of Hispanic students.
- Game-based learning. More than one-third of students also like games, including those played on a computer. Examples include economics students competing in a virtual stock-trading competition, “Wheel of Geology” in a geoscience class and role-playing to explore a conflict in a political science class.
- Quick polls and surveys. Nearly a third of students approve of this method, which can be aided by clickers.
- Partnering up to summarize important concepts. More than a quarter of students appreciate this strategy, sometimes called think-pair-shares.
- Minute papers. Eighteen percent of students over all say it’s helpful to write briefly about a question or prompt. It’s more popular among female students (21 percent) than male students (14 percent), and among arts and humanities students (29 percent) than natural sciences (16 percent) or social sciences students (19 percent).
The new Student Voice survey also asked students how they take notes in class. A majority of students are still writing notes on a device or by hand. A quarter of students rely on professors to post notes or slides, and one in 10 using Google Docs.
- Sixty percent of students take written notes on a computer or device, with this being more popular among students at private institutions (n=279) than public, and among students at four-year institutions than two-year institutions (n=250). Just about half of students with learning disabilities or related conditions say they take notes this way, compared to three in five students without such conditions.
- Some 57 percent of students say they take notes by hand, with pen and paper. This option was most popular among two-year college students, at 75 percent.
- Twenty-six percent of students say they rely on professors posting class slides or notes.
- Eleven percent of students say they use Google Docs to collaborate with classmates, with 15 percent of students with learning disabilities saying they rely on this method versus 9 percent of students without such conditions.
- Five percent of students record lectures or notes on their phones.
- Three percent of students over all don’t take notes at all. Eight percent of students with learning disabilities or related conditions say they don’t take notes, compared to 2 percent of students without such conditions.
- Just 2 percent of students say they rely on someone else to take notes for them, and this was not elevated for students with learning disabilities.
Share your feedback on this survey here. Read more about our prior Student Voice survey of undergraduates on academic life here.