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In the digital age, knowledge retention and student engagement are constant challenges for teachers. With students seemingly attached to their laptops and cell phones, the approach teachers take can produce major difference in the learning outcomes for their students.

In a passive approach, a professor is expected to have a complete mastery of the subject and students come to the class as empty vessels to absorb the material with little practical application of it.  This can lead to a number of difficulties for students, including disengagement, inability to understand critical concepts, and failing grades. The alternative is active approach, where the professor facilitates and guides, while the students are in charge of their own education, through application of the content.

recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55 percent over the rates observed under active learning.” This study shows that STEM students get better grades, fail less, and retain knowledge to use more effectively in active learning environments. There is even evidence of active learning being more beneficial to people with disadvantaged backgrounds.  Scott Freeman, one of the authors of the new study, told Wired, “The impact of these data should be like the Surgeon General’s report on “Smoking and Health” in 1964–they should put to rest any debate about whether active learning is more effective than lecturing.”

Studies like this indicate the best way to learn and teach is through interaction and application. This is corroborated by a scientific study published in Nature Biotechnology where I am a co-author, which compared gamified laboratory simulations with traditional teaching methods. Researchers in collaboration with Labster, observed “a 76 percent increase in learning outcomes by using a gamified laboratory simulation compared to traditional teaching, and a 101 percent increase when used in combination.”

The “one class one curriculum” model with the instructor lecturing from the lectern made sense in an analog world. Today, due to the increasing availability of digital technology, teachers are able to provide personalized learning tracks and meet each of their student’s needs individually. Even more, virtual reality (VR) technology has become more easily accessible, creating a whole new world of possibilities for teachers looking to implement active learning principles.

In a White House Google Hangout last year, Palmer Lucky, the founder of Oculus, said about the possibilities of virtual reality in the classroom, “It’s going to be really important for [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education. Because kids don’t learn best from reading a book or looking at a chalk board. We’ve decided, as a society, that there’s some benefit in field trips; actually having hands-on experiences where we send people to do things. The problem is, it takes a lot of resources to do that. Most field trips I’ve been on have been mostly travelling and corralling kids, and eating lunch, and not nearly as much actual learning. And you’re limited in what you can do. You can’t go to a new place every day because the resources aren’t there.”

Labster’s virtual labs  introduce STEM students to an ecosystem advanced labs, actively engaging them in an immersive application of concepts from their laptop, tablet, or VR headset. To learn more about Labster’s efforts to bring more active learning in the classroom, join our monthly newsletter or try out one of our labs!

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