I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches.
The first concern is that active learning might be too rigid in its methods and doesn’t allow for flexibility. I can see why it might seem that way. The people who research science education encourage us to use it. This encouragement can also repel, because it often sounds prescriptive and difficult, and comes from teaching experts with a classroom mojo that we scientists lack. Active learning sounds like something that requires a set of complex rules and pedagogical acronyms. It might sound like a bad tasting prescription. But it’s not a prescription at all, it’s just a good idea.
Here’s an exercise-related metaphor: If you go to the gym and you are told you need to exercise more, then a trainer might prescribe a regimen of a cardio machines, weightlifting, and zumba. Which might not sound fun if you’re doing on a regular basis without any variety. But here’s the thing: you don’t need cardio machines and zumba to exercise. You just need to exercise. You can go for a hike, a run, a swim, a walk, take a bike ride, go play racquetball, or something else. Whatever sounds fun at a particular moment. I think active learning is the same way. We are often prescribed very specific active learning methods. But in contrast to what a professional development session might advise you, I’m saying that there are so many things you can do when you teach. Just like you can lecture however you want, you can not lecture however you want. Of course you need to plan, but once you get a swing of it, it doesn’t take any more time to plan an active lesson than a lecture; it might even take less time.
The second concern is that active learning activities might be off-putting, uncomfortable or inappropriate for students who are not inclined to jump through hoops imposed by the instructor. The idea was well explained in a comment by JaneB in the last post; here is an excerpt:
Some of them are definitely introverts, 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…
Some learners do great with ‘explore, discuss, notice patterns, THEN get the ‘big picture’ (i.e. short 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?
There are some students who have no problem interacting with others and thinking ideas out loud with their peers. Those aren’t the ones we need to worry about in active learning, except out of concern for the other students that have to work with them. The loudmouth who always raises his hand and asks questions is using the instructor as his active learning partner, selfishly taking the instructor away from the rest of the class.
Most students are not raising their hands. These students may — or may not — be actively thinking about concepts related to class. The research says that those who are actively thinking halfway through a standard science lesson is a small proportion of the class, even in a high quality and engaging lecture. (Of course, those in the class who are future faculty might be in that small proportion.) Let me restate it and underline it, because this is an important point: most quiet students in lecture are not actively engaged in the lesson using critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And it’s unlikely that they’ll be doing it outside the classroom either. That’s apparently just a straight up fact that the education researchers are telling us. The fix, we are told, is to make sure that those silent student aren’t silent. To me, the level of volume in a classroom is correlated with the amount of learning. We need students to interact with their neighbors. Even if they’re uncomfortable about it.
Learning isn’t supposed to be comfortable. We don’t want anxious students, and we don’t want nervous students, and we don’t want disrespected students. Those feelings get in the way of learning. But, I would bet that all want people out of their comfort zone thinking about hard ideas that are difficult to put together. We want to see our students struggling with conceptual discomfort, even if it involves a bit of social discomfort.
But what about those students who have strong feelings that they don’t want to engage with neighbors and that they don’t feel that they need to be told how to learn? These are the exact students who active learning is designed to benefit. Our classes are designed to make students think about certain topics. Making sure that they do it out loud with their peers is just a way of enforcing the requirement for critical thinking rather than giving them an intellectual free pass and sit there without thinking about the topics that you choose.
If there is true medical concern about a student who is not prepared to interact with others, then we need to take that seriously. But if a student doesn’t want to do what a faculty member says is part of a class, because they aren’t comfortable with it? Well, they just need to do it. I think it’s wholly appropriate to treat aversion to active learning just like we’d treat aversion to lab reports or test-taking. It’s a required part of the class.
I realize that asserting, “Just do what I say” is a horrible way to get buy-in. And for active learning to work, you really need buy-in. Most of my students haven’t had classes without lectures, but it still works out. (Sometimes I have that guy — always a guy — who wants to shout answers out to the whole class instead of to his neighbors. But that’s a story for another time.) So how do I get the too-cool-to-play-with-neighbors kind of student to actually do it without being surly the whole semester? I spend plenty of time in the first class meeting explaining how I teach and why I do it that way. Here’s the gestalt of the speech on metacognition that I give at the start of every new course.
I just tell my students why I’m running the class the way that I do. I tell them that I’d just love to talk about biology for days and days. But I explain that, according to research, that I’d be a better teacher if I shut up and let the students work together to solve problems. “My goal this semester is to teach you nothing. It’s my job to arrange the circumstances in which you can discover information on your own. That sounds silly, I know, but I’m doing my best to be an effective teacher. Which means I’m asking you to participate in group activities. I’m doing this because I have respect for you as a student in class. I’m asking you to take a leap of faith that the activities I’m doing here are designed to make the class work, based on what we know about science education. If you haven’t had a class this way it might feel awkward, but if you just follow instructions, then it’ll work out. If my instructions aren’t adequately clear at any time, just let me know. It’s my job to answer those questions. Life isn’t fair. But I’m committed to making this course and this classroom as fair as possible. If there’s any test question that you think is unfair or that you were not capable of anticipating, then I’ll remove that question from the exam. If there’s anything you think I should be doing to run the class in a more respectful manner, I’d love to hear about it.”
Or something along those lines. I think that soliloquy gets me buy in from everybody.
Hopefully this post helps address some of the reluctance that I’ve seen about attempting new active learning strategies. I’m not a pro either, I’m just an enthusiast. But I’ve been heartened that education people, who presumably do know what they’re talking about, have shared and linked to that last post about active teaching, leading me to think that I’m not entirely flawed or wrong in saying that trying is better than not trying. A far-from-perfect active lesson is probably still worth everybody’s time — as long as you don’t spent too much time prepping it.