Research has demonstrated that when adults are actively engaged in the learning process (for example, to solve clinically relevant problems) they are more likely to retain such information (Bransford 1979). Therefore when we involve students in activities that cause them to discuss, question, and weigh the opinions of others about course content (such as during peer discussion of challenging quiz questions in class), we not only foster better long-term retention (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008), but help expand their ability to think critically as well. One of the milestones in our understanding of the impact of active learning resulted from the development & use of an instrument for measuring student mastery of concepts in Newtonian mechanics achieved in undergraduate physics. This instrument is called the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). In 1998 Hake published a study of the use of the FCI in 62 introductory physics courses enrolling 6542 students. Included in the study were 14 "traditional" courses (n=2084 students) which made little or no use of active learning methods, and 48 courses (n=4458 students) which made substantial use of active learning methods. The learning gain for traditional courses was roughly 20% (0.23+/-0.04)(std dev). In sharp contrast, courses using active learning methods showed an average improvement of nearly 50% (0.48+/-0.14)(std dev), almost 2 standard deviations greater learning gain compared to traditional courses. These results clearly demonstrated two important findings: 1) active learning produced significantly superior learning outcomes; and 2) standard lecture-based instruction was not sufficient to bring most students to a level of concept mastery independent of the lecturer. Data obtained from programs with both inspired & engaging lecturers, as well as less motivating lecturers attained the same level of student conceptual understanding (Hake, 1998). These results are consistent with the conclusion that "only lecture" reinforces "only memorization" (Klymkowsky et al., 2003). These findings have led to many additional studies confirming that active learning produces superior learning outcomes compared to traditional lecture design (e.g. Crouch & Mazur, 2001)(see section below for additional references). There is also a limited amount of available data indicating that the use of active learning pegagogy significantly enhances long-term retention (Francis et al., 1998; Cortright et al., 2003; Halpern & Hakel, 2003).
Due in part to the successful use of the FCI in undergraduate physics, as well as the increasing realization that there is a significant information explosion (we can't "cover" everything in a course), many groups of educators have come together to identify the core principles or "concepts" of their respective disciplines. As a result, at present there are multiple scientific disciplines that have either developed, or are actively working to develop their own "concept inventories" for measuring conceptual learning in their respective fields. These fields include (so far): Astronomy, Basic Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Genetics, Geoscience, Molecular Life Sciences (Biochemistry & Molecular biology), Natural Selection, Physiology (undergrad) & Statistics.
At present, the use of active learning pedagogy in medical education is still in its infancy, and we currently lack concept inventories that can be used to measure "conceptual" vs. "factual" learning gains.
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