Students’ heart rates point the way forward to better teaching?

A study published by researchers from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences has shed light on the difficulty in assessing student engagement and the effectiveness of different teaching styles.

The collaboration between researchers from Monash University and the University of North Carolina has revealed that a surprisingly high percentage of students are only pretending to engage in classroom, even when their teachers were highly regarded. Moreover, teachers aren’t necessarily that adept at spotting when students are faking.

The research also concurs with the bulk of previous studies in concluding that active learning methods are significantly more effective at retaining students’ engagement.

Working together with colleagues at the UNC Eschelman School of Pharmacy Monash University researchers Associate Professor Paul White, Doctor Jennifer Short, Doctor Betty Exintaris, Doctor Som Naidu and Doctor Nilushi Karunaratne developed a tool incorporating self-reported data, observation by trained observers and heart-rate measurement to gauge levels of engagement in classes and determine whether classes were encouraging active learning.

The use of trained observers and self-reported data from students revealed that observers failed to identify when students were only pretending to concentrate in classrooms. Twenty three per cent of the students whom observers classified as engaged in fact reported that they were pretending to concentrate during class time.

The Faculty’s Associate Dean of Education, Associate Professor Paul White, says that the findings demonstrate a lack of understanding in how students are responding to learning methods.

“This work shows that we need to understand what is happening in the hearts and minds of the students we are teaching if we want them to engage and to learn with us. We are now at the cutting edge of teaching approaches at an international level,” he said.

“We can incorporate these findings into other measures of teaching effectiveness across the Faculty and other faculties to provide international leadership in how to teach students in the health sciences.”

The study found that active learning components of class were much more effective than traditional didactic teaching methods to engage with students. Participants reported that activities such as small-group activities were more engaging, revealing that the use the novel self-reported tool could be effective for teachers who are seeking to evaluate and modify their learning activities.

Students were at their most engaged when they attempted new approaches in addressing content material or a novel way of thinking. This was determined through a positive increase in heart rate and learning activities.  Highly engaged students also performed better on assessments that tested concepts covered in activities.

Associate Professor White believes that the paper has profound implications for the future of tertiary education.

“This poses an interesting set of questions around how we as an institution could incorporate these findings across the Faculty teaching platforms and can collaborate with educators across all levels to design and evaluate our activities consistently,” he said.

“This shows us that we are performing at our best when we incorporate active learning activities into our curriculum and when we encourage our students to think freely and independently.”

This study is also demonstrative of the efficacy of collaboration, being the first to involve students across multiple PharmAlliance institutions. PharmAlliance is the research, education and practice partnership three of the world's most highly-regarded schools of pharmacy – Monash University, University College London and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. PharmAlliance works to train and encourage future professional practitioners and leaders through education delivery and tackle research challenges across pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences.

Contact: Divya Krishnan

Phone: 0466 910 111

Email: divya.krishnan@monash.edu