Active learning brown bag wrap-up

On Tuesday, CELT held a lunchtime discussion of recent literature on active learning, the first of a three-part series on this topic. The participants in the discussion talked about articles written by instructors in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities who had experimented successfully with collaborative learning, role playing, and Just-in-Time Teaching.

All of the articles presented evidence that active learning works. Despite the seeming loss of the professors’ control over content, students performed better on common assessments, compared with students who were taught using more traditional approaches. This was true even in organic chemistry, where one professor’s active learning approach led to markedly increased scores for her students on a standardized test published by the American Chemical Society.

At the discussion, concerns were raised about whether students see lectures as substitutes for reading the textbook. Several faculty agreed that this is a common attitude, though it’s an attitude that faculty encourage by continuing the vicious cycle of students not reading → faculty summarizing the reading in lecture → students not reading because they know their professor will summarize it for them.

One discussion participant compared breaking this cycle to breaking her child’s dependence on a pacifier: it’s difficult for parent and child alike, but it requires firm commitment on the parent’s part, if the child is going to become more independent.

Ultimately, active learning approaches should encourage students to put in more work outside of the classroom, even as they are working more actively inside of it. An article on role-playing in an American history class speculated that students who took part in the role play performed better on an exam than students who listened to a lecture in part because of how much preparation work the role play required. To use chemist Michelle Jones-Wilson’s terms, students engaged in active learning are held accountable for “first exposure” to the material. The professor’s job, then, is to help students build their understanding on top of what they learn in that first exposure.

Some concerns were also raised about practicality: the JiTT approach requires the faculty member to devote an hour before class to reading through students’ answers to problems, delivered via the course Web site. Some participants worried that this would be challenging for someone teaching back-to-back or early-morning classes. Obviously, not every approach is appropriate for every course, but it’s hard to argue with the results that active learning proponents have seen.

CELT’s series on active learning continues with a workshop, led by Dr. Kristi Concannon, on Sept. 26.


3 responses to “Active learning brown bag wrap-up

  1. What a great set of questions and discussions, Jon. I’ve had some really eye-opening and rejuvenating experiences at Exeter with what the Academy calls “Harkness” teaching, which is more thoroughly student-centered and discussion-based than the teaching I did at Carthage College. No lecturing at all. Students take real ownership of the conversation–at its best, it’s extraordinary to watch, and to me it’s undeniable that they are engaging with the material on a deeper level than they would if I lectured regularly. There’s still a crucial role for the instructor, of course, in terms of constructing the course, training the students to listen and respond well to each other, and assessing their work.

    On a related note, a small lunchtime book group here at Exeter just started Palmer & Zajonc’s *The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal*, which aims at “transforming the academy through collegial conversations.” You all probably know Parker Palmer; Zajonc, who was new to me, is a physicist. We’ve read only the introduction, but it’s engaging and promising so far.

  2. Thanks for the compliment and the recommendations, Tom! I’ll have to check them out. In my MWF class, the students did some small-group work on Friday, and I was just putting the finishing touches on the plan for today: more small-group work. I have to admit that I worry about it getting stale, but I am fairly confident that by the end of today’s class, a number of them will have made some essential insights. Will more do so with this approach, as opposed to my lecturing more? I hope so, though with a small sample size, it’s hard to be sure.

  3. Jeremy Simington

    I found a nice website with lots of active and cooperative learning activities: