Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way


Here are a few difficult facts about education in college classrooms:

  1. Lectures don’t work well. People just don’t really learn much from hour-long lectures.
  2. People learn when they discover ideas on their own.
  3. People learn best when working with peers.
  4. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just explain something to someone than to set up a situation in which this person can figure it out for themselves
  5. It takes a lot longer for a person to figure something out than it takes for you to just explain it to them.

I suppose you can take issue with some of these facts and argue that they’re not true facts. But just as climate scientists are mighty darn sure about anthropogenic warming trends, education researchers seem to be just as sure about this these facts. I let them take my word for it about ecology and evolution, and I’ll take their word for it about education.

And this is a problem, because it means that what a lot of us have been doing appears to not just suboptimal but downright inadvisable. For example, about ten years ago, I subbed for a colleague’s Conservation Biology’s course. She gave me her notes for the day, as she had taught it in previous semesters. I tried to lecture as quickly as possible, but I only got through about a quarter of the material that she usually taught in a single period. The only way she could have taught this much information would have been to talk extremely quickly, with students transcribing without really thinking. What are the odds that the students really learned something that day? I’d say somewhere between nil and none.

If we are going to design lessons in which students genuinely learn in class, that means that we need to seriously pare back on the number of facts and concepts that we are going to address in a class session. Which means paring back the total number of concepts for the whole semester. We are in love with the cool little details. Who doesn’t want to lecture for ten minutes on the extraordinarily long penises of barnacles or the likelihood that carnivorous kangaroos once prowled the plains of Antarctica? Lecturing on cool stuff is fun, but if we do more than just a little of it, then we actually are depriving our students of the opportunity to learn in the limited time we have with them, typically just 45 hours for a full lecture course.

Here are a few difficult facts about my job as a professor:

  1. The professional and personal development of students is my highest priority at work.
  2. Classroom teaching is only one part of my job.
  3. Research is important and a high priority.
  4. If I spend all of my time teaching, I’ll have no time for research and mentorship.
  5. If I don’t spend enough time writing papers and grants, I lose resources to do research with students.

I want to design my classes for students to learn, but I can’t spend too much time teaching. Which means that somehow I need to find a way to teach efficiently – to be as effective as I can given the amount of time I can give to the teaching assignment. There are so many ways of teaching. Some are more effective for the students, and some are more time efficient for the instructor. I’m focused on finding that sweet spot where I can be an effective instructor without losing all of my working hours on a class. Or, as the title of a well-used book among K-12 teachers says, Never Work Harder Than Your Students.

Common wisdom is that it takes less time to prepare lectures than it takes to develop an inquiry-based lesson. I’m not sure I agree with this. At least, I think the lessons that I’ve been teaching haven’t taken any more time than it would take me to put together a pretty good lecture. So, then, what is it that I do in my inquiry-based, group-working classes that doesn’t take so much prep time? I’ll walk through some ways I’ve put a lesson together.

My big challenge in creating an active-learning lesson is not to decide what to teach but what to not teach. I think there’s a huge hurdle to get over, or a big concept to get one’s mind around, in the process of choosing against the lecture. I realized that I’ve just got to let content go. There is information that I love to share, but I don’t include it in my lessons because we just don’t have the time and they end up being not as relevant to the central concept. A cliché in education — that less is more — seems to be true. If you give students a few key concepts to learn about in class, and they learn these concepts really well while working together, then they are going to learn far more content overall, through exposure to reading and other assignments. Just because I didn’t take 20 minutes to explain the subtle details of Connell’s barnacle competition experiment doesn’t mean that students won’t learn about it. But if the students take a whole hour to discover principles about competition on their own in class, then they’ll be able to really appreciate the Connell experiment when they read the chapter. It seems counter-intuitive, but I’ve discovered (for myself) that it’s true. But hopefully I’ve arranged the situation for you to discover this for yourself if you decide to teach without a lecture, pare back on content, and discover that students learn more detail in the long run.

Consequently, when I teach a lesson, I need to decide for a whole hour, what central concept matters. And it’s a really simple one. For example, what is the central limit theorem? Once I get a handle on a single concept, I need to come up with a set of activities for students to do together in groups to figure out the central concept on their own. What do those activities look like? It can be a huge variety of things. My general principle is that it should never involve me standing at the front of the room talking for more than five minutes at the time, and that the bulk of the time is students actively working together on something built towards creating their own understanding of the central idea.

In my central limit theorem lesson, I bring a bunch of dice to the class. I ask the students to quickly draw a distribution of expected frequencies if they roll one die at a time – the odds of getting any number 1-6 are equal to one another. I then ask them to calculate the odds of the outcomes by rolling two dice and adding the numbers together, with the odds of getting values between 2 and 12. I don’t call out to the class for raised hands – I ask the students to work together for a couple minutes and then ask some groups to share out. I summarize this quickly on the board. I then ask the groups to come up with their predictions about how the shape of the frequency distribution might change based on the number of dice they roll. What would it look like after just a few rolls? How about 15? How about 30? How about 100? Unless some students have read further ahead in the book than I expect, there ends up being a broad range of predictions, and in my experience, few of those predictions are actually correct. Then, I ask the students to build their own frequency histograms by rolling the dice. A lot. Then I get each group to plot its distributions on the board (or if I were in “brilliant” classroom we could do this other ways, though I think I’d like the board just as much.) That dice rolling and data management takes at least half an hour. Then, I ask the students to compare their findings to their predictions. Once we put everybody’s findings together, and groups mill around to visit with neighboring groups, then people figure out how the distribution changes as they roll more dice. Then, as the class is winding down, I go to a website that does virtual dice rolls to cement the discovery, and we spend a few minutes talking about how the central limit theorem seems counterintuitive but indeed that’s the math and the probabilities work. And that this is a central concept for all (frequentist) statistics.

How would I teach the central limit theorem as a lecture? I guess I’d explain it verbally, and show a variety of powerpoint slides with a few examples, and then show to the class the virtual dice rolls. And I’d be able to cover a lot more material in the same period of time. But what’s more important: covering material, or allowing the students to learn by finding out the idea on their own? I would bet, or at least hope, that students in my inquiry-based lesson will remember the central limit theorem a few years later based on our dice rolling session. At least, I have a half of a chance that they might. But would they remember a five-minute lecture? No way. I don’t design my classes for the exam, I design them for the long haul. And I’m betting that a deeper understanding of the central limit theorem results in better mastery of statistics, and a better ability of the student to follow the textbook, than a high quality lecture. And if any student wants a lecture, they can always hit up the internet, where they can find a lecture as good or better than one that I would be able to cook up.

How do I teach other kinds of topics using group work and active learning approaches? It depends on what the central concept is. While rolling dice allows students to actually observe a mathematical phenomenon, students can’t readily observe and solve problems involving things like island biogeography or natural selection. In these situations, I’m more inclined to present problems or case scenarios, either real ones from the literature or something that I just make up. I then ask the students to develop ideas that can explain something, or to develop predictions. I then provide additional information as they work on the problem.

For example, the last time I taught a lesson on natural selection, I handed out to everybody in class a few summary pages from Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. I gave them 10 minutes, right on the spot, to read those pages, and I was there to answer vocab and language questions. I then asked them in small groups to why they thought that this was one of the essential pieces of writing that independently influenced Wallace and Darwin as they figured out natural selection more than fifty years later. I asked them how this information from Malthus fits in with the “struggle for existence” in organisms. I then tell them that another commonality among Darwin and Wallace is that they both had the epiphany that every species has inherent variation among individuals that isn’t a flaw but instead reflects traits that are passed on from generation to generation. With groups of four students working together, I ask them to develop a line of argument to understand how “decent with modification” can happen. With some leading questions, with some groups needing a little more prodding (or the opportunity to consult with neighboring groups), the students pretty much independently derive something similar to Ernst Mayr’s classic distillation of Darwin’s summary of the argument for natural selection. Here’s the thing: the groups do this without me ever telling them how natural selection works, until the lesson is over and (most) students have already done it on their own. It takes a whole hour, or sometimes a little more, to go through this process. In contrast, a lecture about the specific mechanism of natural selection would take five minutes, with all kinds of specific examples. But I’d rather give the students an hour to figure out natural selection on their own, in a closely guided fashion, instead of just being told. I think the odds that they’ll remember it, and be able to explain it to others, is a lot greater. That’s what the education researchers tell me at least.

Coming up with a lesson like that is not necessarily more work for me than lecturing. It actually seems easier to me. We all have gotten lectures on so many different topics as students, that we know how to put together a solid lecture as instructors. But few of us have experienced inquiry-focused lessons (other than laboratories), and the lack of familiarity might make it seem harder. But if you give it a try, I suspect ain’t so hard. Another nice thing about dropping lectures is that it frees me from having to stand up in front of a class and speak so much, and I get to mill around a classroom and listen to groups working.

One thing to keep in mind is that for untenured faculty, that the quality of your teaching and student learning plays little to no role in your tenure case, even if you’re at a teaching institution. Instead, what matters is the perception of teaching effectiveness, in the eyes of those who are evaluating your tenure case. For example, in my last job I was advised to “be less Socratic and lecture more.” In that department, active learning strategies were unacceptable. So, if you choose to teach in a matter that is markedly different than your colleagues, then it’s advisable to consult with a trusted senior faculty member before rocking the boat. But if you’re tenured, heck I say rock the boat! That’s what tenure is for, don’t waste it!

20 thoughts on “Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way

  1. Nice! I’ve actually done something very similar to the dice activity, but with coin-flipping (I bring a couple rolls of Kennedy half-dollars to class), just to get across the difference between the outcome of a particular trial and the expectation of outcomes across multiple trials. I really think probability is hard enough to wrap your head around without making it an entirely abstract concept in a lecture.

    And I will definitely be cribbing that introduction to natural selection for the first class I teach that includes the concept. I’ve heard good things about structuring classes around classic papers and publications that way.

  2. Very cool Terry! Thanks for sharing these ideas! I’ll have to think about how I can work more active learning exercises into my classes. I find that my students definitely retain more information and concepts when they participate in an activity or case study as opposed to just listening to me describe it.

  3. Do you think this could work with an intro/general Bio class, with 68 students, in a large lecture hall, and with half of an enormous textbook expected to be covered in a semester (Chemistry, Cells, Genetics, Evolution)?

  4. James, I totally think so. As long as you’ve got classroom management, then these active learning approaches can really scale up unless you’re in some auditorium where it’s hard for students to interact.

    The real problem, though, is getting your colleagues on board. You cannot expect students to have memorized the same number of facts, but you can expect them to demonstrate greater mastery of concepts. So testing would be somewhat different. You’d need to have everybody okay with the fact that you have only about 35 concepts for the whole semester, and then plenty more facts hung on those concepts (from reading and other assignments) for which students are responsible.

    The last time I taught a big intro-type course was quite a long while ago, with about 60 students, a diversity/function/physiology course, a classic march-through-phyla with some other concepts thrown in. I taught several of the lessons using a non-lecture approach, and test scores on those sections were higher than they were in the past. But then again, I chose material to teach this way that was more obviously amenable to this mode of instruction. I was hobbled in part because I had no control over the content of the labs for this lecture, and they were very traditional with lots of look, point, draw, and memorize.

    I would think that intro bio courses with labs would have to reconsider what kind of material happens in the classroom and what happens in the lab. Some activities that might normally happen in the lab (such as experimental design and introduction to phylogenetics) could be moved into the classroom. But other things that might be covered in lecture — like the oxygen revolution and the evolution of microbial diversity — could be shifted into the lab in which inquiry-based projects might involve more manipulables and longer stretches of time. I guess, I’m just making this up right now on the spot. But I think a class with lab sections, and an active learning approach in the lecture sessions, would benefit carefully from coordination with labs.

    Oftentimes labs are just the experiential demonstration of what happens in lecture time. But students don’t really understand or care or know about it until they experience it, so the lecture on the topic could end up just being wasted time. So an active learning curriculum for big intro classes needs to be well-put together to make sure the key learning objectives are a part of the course.

    (While on the topic of reconsidering intro curricula, I’m hoping I can charm my pal at Linfield College to write a guest post about how their reinvention of the intro sequence is going, a few years after they decided to teach the whole thing chronologically. Starting with the origins of life up to now, dealing with organisms as they evolved, and dealing with biological processes as they came about in the organisms.)

  5. Great post and great ideas!

    I do think that you can successfully incorporate active learning into your classroom pre-tenure even within departments that are more lecture-focused, but you do have to tread very carefully and, most importantly, get your senior colleagues on board. I decided after trying to primarily lecture my first few years on the tenure track (which is not at all how I’m comfortable teaching—I’m not a particularly effective lecturer but I shine at helping my students explore and play with concepts) that I’d rather take the risk of teaching more authentically, even if it meant that my student evals took a hit for a bit. It was a fair bit of extra work on my part, having conversations with all my senior colleagues about what I was doing, and why, and what my goals for student learning were. I won’t lie—they were skeptical! But eventually they came around, I got tenure, and the department culture is changing—more of my colleagues are doing more active learning stuff in their classes. I think it’s important to note though that at my institution, teaching is the #1 tenure/promotion criteria, which might have been why I was able to pull this off. I agree that it may be riskier at a research-oriented institution.

  6. In small classes (32 or less students) I think one can be fluid in the methods used in lecture and in lab. In very large classes…with no labs…some experiential learning is important….the kinds of activities you describe. Good coordination of lecture and lab activities would be great.
    Where does writing fit in the active learning push? I use writing assignments (short of long) to get a grip on how individuals (as opposed to groups) are grasping content and thinking in novel ways.

  7. Great post! My experience of making the transition from lecture-style teaching to active learning formats is that it can take less time, but take a lot out of you. Many experienced teachers can wing a passable lecture in their field of expertise and deliver it half-asleep. Active learning activities may not require a lot more prep (and it’s often the kind of prep–thinking through logistics–that you can do while biking to work or folding laundry), but you have to be ON: debriefing the groups as they work, keeping feelers out for groups that are losing focus, managing the lag time between groups that are fielding totally unexpected questions, watching the time, finessing the transition from one stage of the activity to the next. For us introvert types, it can be exhilarating, but also leave us longing to decompress in a quiet, dark room for a few hours.

  8. This is great Terry. I’m going to try moving my intro biostats class in this direction this term. The main difficulty is that I do need to cover a bunch of specific statistical tests; the course is a prereq for others in which they’ll be expected to be familiar with those tests. So my ability to pare down the course to a small number of key ideas is somewhat limited…

  9. Great post Terry! I try to do this in my classes but this has motivated me to do it even more. I typically do two lectures and then an inquiry-based learning experience each week in my plant physiology class and the students love the lab most. We get into great conversations during lectures that they become less like lectures and more like discussions but not always. You’ve given me food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Very interesting! I agree that coming up with this type of class is fun and need not take any longer than preparing a traditional lecture, and have been doing more of it, but I’m resistent to going over to it fully. I understand intellectually the arguments about this sort of learning, and I aim to never talk for more than 20 minutes without breaking for some sort of active engagement, but I do have a problem with this mode of teaching, which is that I-as-learner would have – and do – loathe it. It doesn’t suit me. It bores me. It frustrates me. It turns me off the topic. It creates anxiety whenever it involves social interactions around a time limited task or where one has to do one’s thinking in public (guess who was bullied at school for being a nerd and ‘wierd’). It’s just not terribly helpful. And that isn’t just about remembering my own student days through a hazy filter, that’s through attending staff development events, evening classes, conference workshops, and studying college level courses for credit over the last 5-10 years.

    Now, I have no doubt I’m atypical, at one end of the learning spectrum if you like,, but whilst my own students are typically less bookishly intellectual in their approach to life (I went to an elite traditional uni, I teach at a mid-ranked regional institution taking a very different student profile), some of them are definitely intraverts, socially awkward, people who like to think stuff out in their own heads before they talk about it… so I wrestle with how to help THEM feel safe and included and engaged in the classroom, as well as the more chatty, extravert, like working stuff out in groups students.

    As I currently conceptualise it, some learners do great with ‘explore, discuss, notice patterns, THEN get the big picture’ (i.e. suit intro-activities-guided discussion-short lecture-followup reading type classes) but others do better with ‘big picture, examples, explore and prove it to yourself, relate what you just did back to the big picture’ (lecture, read, practical, recall/review type classes). How do you deal with students who like to do their thinking quietly, or mediated by written/spoken words rather than pitching straight in to the activities? With ones who work faster or slower than the rest? I’d love to hear about that, because to me it’s the hard bit or adapting teaching to respond to the research; designing the classes is just a fun puzzle.

    • Jane, this comment (and some other similar responses I’ve heard) are post-worthy in a response of its own. How is it that active learning can/should work for students who don’t want this kind of social interaction, and those who don’t want to be compelled to talk about and work on certain things by their professor? My student population is like yours, I think, though we’re more of a very low-ranked regional (though the new fed govt rankings have us in the top 10 nationally) uni. So, in the next couple weeks, more about this should be coming.

  11. James, I am doing this in a class similar to yours this semester. Mine is a human anatomy and physiology course in which I heavily use case studies and other problem-based learning techniques. My solution to finding more time to have students solve problems in class has been pretty straightforward:

    1) Enforce the reading of the book chapters before the material is covered in class.
    2) Reinforce the readings with short (5-7 min) screencasts that students can watch by themselves.
    3) I had them already, but clear learning objectives for each chapter are a huge help if you are entering a classroom situation where control is wrestled away from you.

    So far, so good… and I don’t have to waste an hour or two showing slides of pictures of histology slides. Instead, we are discussing various conditions, trying to figure out which tissue is affected. Regarding this, my comment on the amount of preparation is that I spend the majority of my time anticipating and researching students’ potential questions. E.g., if a skin condition is caused by a mutation in gap junctions, but my students think it’s a desmosome problem, I better know something about desmosomes (and tight junctions. and their associated conditions in skin and other organs. It multiplies.) So yeah, the effort is pretty big, especially if you can fall back on an existing lecture you have given before.

    A colleague and friend does a similar thing in Organic Chem with a 50-student class.

    Let me know if you want some input – happy to chat.

  12. Nice post. 2 quick thoughts: I’m eager to try your “reading on the spot” activity. I think that might work well in an intro class that I teach. Second, on the 1st day in that intro class, I write the following on the board when I discuss how I envision the dynamics of my class: “I can explain it to you but I can’t understand it for you.”

  13. Terry & Jane, I’m working on increasing the active learning in my large environmental studies class. I also struggle with the best way to help the introverts (especially because I was also one!). Hope to see more on it. The way I’ve thought about it so far is – those aren’t really the students I worry about – they may be be uncomfortable (and I do want to help with that) but they perform well regardless because their bookish ways and attention to detail seem to outshine their social discomfort. Perhaps that’s unfair to them?

  14. Great ideas here, Terry. A suggestion and a couple questions:

    the suggestion: To those of you who read this and want to do right by your students by incorporating active learning, but who also felt totally overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to replace all your lectures with learning activities, take it slow. Don’t get caught up in feeling guilty every time you do ANY lecturing, and don’t try to go from 0 to 60 in one semester, because it might turn you off to making changes all together. I’d suggest incorporating active learning bit by bit, at a pace you’re comfortable with. If it’s your first semester trying to dial down the lecturing, maybe try to incorporate one short active learning strategy per class period. When you start to feel more at ease, you can scale up the activities or include more of them. But going from all lecturing to no lecturing is a pretty daunting task that might leave you soured on active learning all together.

    the questions: Terry, out of curiosity, why not have the students read the Malthus essay outside of class, which would free up those 10 minutes for more group discussion? Also, do you have suggestions for someone (me) teaching in a very old-school lecture hall, with immovable desks that are so close together that moving around is just not a realistic option? I include small group activities/discussions in every class, but it’s not easy. For me this has been a surprisingly annoying barrier to incorporating active learning strategies.

  15. This is a really good and really important point. Thanks for bringing this up. YES, it’s not a do-or-don’t-do proposition. Do what you can and want and when you can and want. If you’re not happy with what and how you’re teaching, the students won’t be either.

    About doing the reading before class, if it were a longer read, then this clearly would be necessary. But I want that information, and the text itself, to be right in front of the students, and to consider it along with everybody else. I think the discussion about how they piece it together, right after reading it, is a good learning moment. Also, in a more practical matter, there’s no way I could get everybody to do the reading unless they were physically there in the room. If I tried to hold the discussion about the reading, then some people might have read it three days ago, and wouldn’t have remembered it that well.

    Also, one of my grouchy old man pet peeves is that students don’t read enough. Students don’t read enough literature, and they don’t read enough about science either. (I wrote a post about this once). Seriously, I’m not joking when I think that uninterrupted reading of a couple pages of prose is something that the students don’t do regularly, even those who have a textbook. So by taking the time in class to just sit down and read, I’m showing that reading is a real priority and something that’s expected of them. And that reading is a valuable way to spend time. If we keep assigning reading, and then don’t read with students in class — and it’s possible for them to sake by without doing the reading carefully as often happens — then doing it in class once in a while ain’t horrible, I don’t think. Is this a sad state of affairs in which we actually have to do things to encourage students to read? Yes, it is. But ignoring the fact that they many don’t read much doesn’t make the fact go away.

    As for immovable desks or those that are tightly packed? I’ve had a couple rooms like this. I make sure that students have a person to talk to next to them, and often I have them discuss in pairs. Then, on occasion, I’ll have pairs consult with other pairs. That involves standing up and walking around a bit, which is okay with me.

  16. Thank you for putting on this on paper – I’ll be sharing it!

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