Tough questions for active learning

The CELT blog has been a big cheerleader for active learning this year. And why not? Active learning can boast support from many, many studies showing its greater effectiveness when compared with traditional, lecture-based teaching formats. Indeed, among scholars of teaching and learning, “active learning” is virtually synonymous with “good teaching.”

But as scholars, we know that every theory has its limits. Active learning surely is not the answer to every pedagogical problem. In fact, active learning has some problems of its own.

In a recent blog post, Maryellen Weimer asks some tough questions about active learning. For instance, there’s the question about quantity: “How much active learning does it take to start achieving the desirable outcomes that occur when students are actively dealing with the material?” This question is in principle answerable, but Weimer has found no hard and fast answer. It may be that none exists.

Weimer also states that she is

concerned that too often what’s happening in classrooms is activity simply for the sake of activity. Active learning has become something teachers use to keep basically bored students awake and attentive. This puts faculty on a quest to find novel and unusual activities, which isn’t necessarily bad but it can mean that activities aren’t selected and sequenced with some overall plan in mind.

I often promote active learning in my classes, but if I’m honest with myself, I will admit that the activities are not always very well planned. A few weeks ago, I asked my students to develop the outline of an argument based on a collection of primary sources I’d dumped on them. I had a lot of fun developing the project, but in practice, I didn’t give the students enough time to figure out what they were supposed to do with the sources. As Weimer notes, despite many professors’ espousal of active student learning, “the most active learner in the majority of classrooms is the teacher.”

Furthermore, teaching in a way that favors “uncoverage” or fosters lifelong learning may in some cases do students a disservice. David Scott Trochtenberg, a physician teaching at a medical school, describes having to “cover” an enormous amount of material for students who, despite their extraordinarily high motivation, are easily bored by rapid presentation of facts for memorization. So he included two active-learning sessions within his lecture one day. He reports that “After class, the students approached me and told me they had thoroughly enjoyed this class session.”

This is good, right? Yes, but the ultimate question must be, Did the students learn more effectively? Trochtenberg’s exam questions could assess that, but in the end, his students must face a much higher-stakes assessment in their board and licensing exams. Trochtenberg found, though, that even he was unable to answer the sample board exam questions his students were given to help them prepare for those exams.

Trochtenberg’s dilemma is at least partly the making of the medical boards. He seems to think that med schools’ learning goals are aligned toward the boards, but the boards are not themselves well-aligned with the actual practice of medicine, which demands a whole set of skills that cannot be easily assessed through a standardized exam.

Finally, our colleague Jeramia Ory wrote in the CELT Facebook group about his approach to active learning:

Currently, twice a week I give an abbreviated lecture (30 min) and then they break into groups to do problems with my assistance. What I would prefer to do is have 10 minute lectures punctuated with 5 minute group work, after which one group is responsible for presenting their answer to the class.

What a great idea! Why not put it into practice right away?

However, that approach would require such a fundamental overhaul of the entire course that I just don’t see it happening anytime soon.

Oh, right. A paradox of active learning is that handing more in-class responsibility over to the students can take a tremendous amount of prep time. With a heavy teaching load, Jeramia does not have the time to make that overhaul all at once. As Weimer’s post contends, really effective active learning demands very thoughtful planning, in order to ensure that it doesn’t devolve into a dog-and-pony show.

As Janice Thompson also wrote on Facebook:

It takes me hours to design a good assignment. I just don’t have the time to do that too many times each semester. But very slowly my collection is growing.

None of these observations should lead us to give up on active learning altogether. But we do need to be honest about the challenge of implementing active learning and the limits on any pedagogy. Learning and teaching are hard work, not magic.

What limitations have you encountered in trying to foster active learning in your classes? How have you managed to overcome any of these limitations?

Photo by stock.xchng user Valsilvae / Creative Commons licensed.


2 responses to “Tough questions for active learning

  1. First off, thanks for the link to the dog-and-pony show, which was delightful. Second, I want to say (as much to myself as to anyone) how great Jeremia’s proposed class structure is, since the presentation component makes the students take on the role of the teacher–the role which, as Weimer points out, is generally going to be the most active one in any class. For my writing class, I’m experimenting with turning the usual rough draft into a potential dog-and-pony show: the students will present their judgments on a movie, etc. in the form of a kind of Siskel & Ebert head-to-head. The rationale is that they need to work on acknowledging and responding to other critics, and on making concessions and comebacks, and scripting a debate with partners seems ideal for developing those skills. They’ll revise ideas from the script into a paragraphed final-draft essay. But might they learn more from an individually-written, commented-on draft? Some might, and I might wish I had done that. (After all, it’s not as if writing isn’t active enough learning already.) Like Janice, I’m conscious of trying to develop a working collection, and that always takes trial and error.

    • If you think the students need work on offering a judgment and acknowledging and responding to the judgment of others, then having them actually do that should be good practice. There may be no easy way to tell if they’d be better served by writing a draft. Yes, we all should be making pedagogical decisions based on evidence, but there’s never enough time for that. Many times, intuition is as good a guide as anything.