Cognitive effort, and learning more but feeling like I'm learning less
September 7, 2019 8:51 AM   Subscribe

According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "though students felt as if they learned more through traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in classrooms that employed so-called active-learning strategies" (solving sample problems with peers and with help from the instructor). As the lead author says, "Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning.... On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are." The research studied Harvard students in a physics class; instructors on Twitter share their similar experiences in other settings.
posted by brainwane (86 comments total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
If you skim the study, I suggest you particularly check out the seven paragraphs within "Results and Discussion" that start at "Having observed this negative correlation between students' FOL [feeling of learning] and their actual learning, we sought to understand the causal factors behind this observation."

Lead author Louis Deslauriers says in the Harvard news story: "This could help to explain why study after study shows that student evaluations seem to be completely uncorrelated with actual learning." And I find myself thinking about charismatic lecturers (including me) who entertain -- in the classroom, in conference talks, in videos and podcasts, etc. -- and whose listeners (including me) perceive ourselves to be learning.
posted by brainwane at 9:01 AM on September 7, 2019 [24 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I was following the group's work for a while, but then forgot to, and now I've sent the main article to my boss already.
posted by mumimor at 9:14 AM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks! I teach science at a community college and I love coming armed with this stuff to my classes. It's no doubt easier for lecturers to deliver a "traditional" lecture, but I hate the idea of all the brainpower in the class just sitting idle while I blather on.

Interestingly, I had the experience of being a freshman again this summer (I took Introductory Physical Geography) where the lecturer's approach was "I lecture, you listen". It was... a bit frustrating for me? I mean, I enjoyed the lectures (geologists have the best field work stories) but I never got that much out of them.
posted by invokeuse at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

Did they publish the materials used in the class? It seems relevant what kinds of problems were either demonstrated through lecture or given to students to solve in groups. I would like to see what was considered a best-practices use of group learning for these students, whether they were "discovering" a concept from experimentation or basic principles, or learning to apply a technique or concept in an unfamiliar setting, etc.

“Actual learning and feeling of learning were strongly anticorrelated."

I remember learning this for myself in my first term of college, but knowing this never made the feeling disappear (until I got a graded assignment returned).
posted by klausman at 9:26 AM on September 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

This is a great example of Dunning-Kruger effect. Students who do not have the tools to do a skill will overestimate their proficiency. Students who have a greater number of cognitive tools to complete a task will overestimate their proficiency a bit less.

So. Students who learned more are likely to paradoxically feel less confident about what they learned.

This is maddening in a lot of domains.
posted by bilabial at 9:31 AM on September 7, 2019 [28 favorites]

klausman, check out the appendix to the study? (Direct PDF link, 34.4 MB.) It includes:
  1. Lecture slides shown in the Statics Equilibrium class. (Same for both groups.) There is typically one activity per slide, with about 6-8 slides per 60 minutes class.
  2. Lecture slides shown in the Fluids class. (Same for both groups.)....
  3. Feeling of Learning (FOL) survey given to both groups in both classes.
  4. Test of learning (TOL) given to both groups on the material taught in the Statics Equilibrium class.
  5. Test of learning (TOL) given to both groups on the material taught in the Fluids class.
  6. Slides for 20 minute-long presentation given by the instructor at the beginning of the semester aimed at improving student attitudes about active learning.
  7. Statistical modeling of peer effects.
This study led me to be curious about what some names are for experiences of uncertainty and not-knowing. I sometimes see people talk about the struggling-with-not-understanding parts of learning with words like "lost" or "floundering" and say that they have "no idea" what is happening or what to do, or are "getting nothing done". I have found that finding a richer vocabulary to describe my interior landscape has helped me observe, orient, decide, and act better when it comes to my emotions, and I wonder what words other people use for the different textures of ignorance and struggle during learning?

I want something less binary. For example: for me, if I'm hasty and don't take time to reflect, I'm "lost/don't get it" at minute one and at minute 60 of trying to learn something. But if I take a moment to observe how I feel more closely, at minute one I'm usually cheerfully exploring a new path, and at minute 60 I sometimes feel tangled, losing a thread.
posted by brainwane at 9:40 AM on September 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

There seem to be two separate issues here. The first is that students retained the information better with active learning, but the more provocative finding is that the student evaluations did not reflect that. Evaluations are often something of a popularity contest -- what type of professor is perceived as "good" by students? What type of credibility does that entail? How does that affect professors who are not extroverted white males with degrees from Ivy League schools?

The discrepancy between actual and perceived value jives with other studies as well. There is data in medicine, for instance, that women physicians and minority physicians routinely have better outcomes (particularly when there is concordance between the race/gender of the patient and the physician, but even if they are discordant), yet women and minorities statistically have lower patient satisfaction scores, which are increasingly being used to decide bonuses and promotion. (So yay for the racial and gender pay gaps getting wider!)

I personally have had bad experiences with "active learning," in both STEM and humanities courses. I don't know whether this is a learning styles/learning preferences thing, or whether it's about the small group skills of the teachers, but every time it's felt like the prof is checked out and it's the blind leading the blind. Obviously, there is a way to do this well, just like there is a way to lecture well, but active learning is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all thing. It's probably easier to pitch activities across a range of needs compared to a lecture, though.
posted by basalganglia at 9:42 AM on September 7, 2019 [31 favorites]

Anyone with an autodidactic streak already knows this, that hands on learning (and, learning with peers) is the only way to learn. However, the immediate criticism I have would be that learning should not be reduced to solving a series of problems. That they accept this as a premise is highly problematic, as solving a series of problems is fundamentally how machine learning works, and it says at a lot about society and politics that certain scientists and educators nevertheless think of students as smart machines.
posted by polymodus at 9:42 AM on September 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

This is why the US service academies use the Thayer Method, with small class sizes built around practical instruction. Of course, the relatively small student body sizes of the academies is in part what enables the method in the first place.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:44 AM on September 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

A colleague of mine says his favorite student comment was, "He didn't teach anything in this class. I had to learn it all myself."

Looking at my evaluations, a different colleague stated, "BrashTech lectures well, and she should do it more." My students complain that my approach is lazy, which, seriously, do you know how EASY it is to write a 1-hour lecture and how hard it is to write a 1-hour student-centered activity?

Luckily there is a lot of data that I was able to use in my tenure case that illustrates that my approach is one that leads to more learning, in order to counteract the really negative student evaluations.

My evals are very polarized, though. Many students really appreciate learning by doing, and practicing their skills in a supported classroom environment before having to do the homework. (I should emphasize that our students, at a highly selective SLAC with a penchant for attracting and nurturing amazing weirdos, are not typical.)
posted by BrashTech at 9:46 AM on September 7, 2019 [16 favorites]

I vaguely remember a study from a few years ago - maybe from the same group? - which found that when students come out of a lecture feeling that they understand the material well they do worse on the test, and when students come out feeling confused they do better on the test.

Maybe "confusing lectures" should count as a positive in lecturer evaluations.
posted by clawsoon at 9:49 AM on September 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't think I was ever a great teacher, but this is something of a revelation to me because I used to be so frustrated by how much students hated my efforts to do the active learning stuff my pedagogy professors had taught me to do. Because - you can't do active learning if your students drag their heels and say "no." You can lecture, and it doesn't matter if students participate, and that makes it a really tempting way to teach and it's how the students expect you and want you to teach! But lecture is definitely an awful way to teach composition.

So the question for me is, if there's such a huge discrepancy between what students are learning and what they think they're learning, what ways are there to get students to buy in to active learning? Are there effective ways to get students to believe it's actually worth it to put in the effort?
posted by Jeanne at 9:51 AM on September 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

And before any professors jump over my assertion about "the professor is checked out" -- I know firsthand, from creating material myself, that a flipped classroom is a lot more work than a lecture. I'm speaking from my personal experiences with this in high school physics and AP US History; the latter was so terrible that another teacher held voluntary remediation lectures, lunches and after-school to get us up to speed for the AP exam.
posted by basalganglia at 9:54 AM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

clawsoon: check out the "One of the most important metacognitive cues is the apparent fluency of cognitive tasks." paragraph and the bits about "disfluency" - maybe one of those citations is the study you remember?

Jeanne: Yes, it looks like setting clear context & expectations for students helps them decide the effort is worth it! Look at the bit in the research paper that starts: "it is likely that a significant part of students’ comparably negative response to this intense style of active learning is a result of the disfluency they experience in this cognitively demanding environment. We carried out a semester-long intervention to see if these attitudes could be changed...."
posted by brainwane at 9:56 AM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Anyone with an autodidactic streak already knows this, that hands on learning (and, learning with peers) is the only way to learn.

I dunno, I hated peer co-learning because so much of it revolved around trying to get different students to all be on something like the same page and if your own concept didn't match those of the others then you had to either break with the group or accept their ideas as representing your own even if they didn't.

In STEM this might have more utility in difficult areas of study where there is at least something of an expected answer to reach, but in some of the humanities this isn't a great outcome. I much preferred listening to lectures because I liked to listen and actively challenge the points being made from someone who knew what they were talking about. I'd ask questions when needed and challenge points if appropriate during discussion periods and looked up anything else that was necessary later on. Many other students though didn't like listening to lectures and didn't do it all that well, in part perhaps because they were involved in note taking trying to capture details rather than piecing together whole arguments.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:59 AM on September 7, 2019 [15 favorites]

Yeah I actually agree, and even in STEM what happens is you have huge disparities in technical ability, and groups and pairs just don't magically have the skills and/or scaffolding to deal with that range of ability. For students that feel they are technically weaker, it doesn't feel good at all to not be contributing as much.
posted by polymodus at 10:02 AM on September 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

One of the things that frustrates me as an instructor is that I don't have the experience, training, materials, or time to implement a lot of active learning in my classes. (Some classes are easier than others.)

I feel like it's common knowledge among the instructors I know traditional lectures aren't ideal, but those of us who care still struggle to get away from them. When I was an undergraduate, lectures were the norm, which means I wasn't exposed to a lot of "active learning" classrooms and don't have a good idea of what that looks like. My own training as an instructor was fairly basic, and I have a limited time to prepare for my classes: Contractually, I'm not supposed to go over 20 hours a week for all class-related work and and administration, and my other obligations tend to assume I'm not even doing that. If I only work 40hrs a week, that's a good week.

(Also, as a woman, I'm penalized more than my male peers for trying to move away from traditional teaching formats. If I don't use slides, students perceive me as less organized and less prepared. Experimenting is risky, as well. Meanwhile, I've definitely noticed that some of the more charismatic male instructors I know can get away with a lot more.)

I think I am kind of burnt out on articles about how we can be teaching better. I like this one and will probably send it around. But the exhortations that lecturers should ... know better ... are kind of tiring, just because all of the lecturers I know who care about teaching (which is not all, but most), have very little support for making changes and might be penalized if you do. I want to see more articles about how the academy could support instructors better.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:10 AM on September 7, 2019 [40 favorites]

Brainewane -- thanks, I skipped it on mobile and will check them out when I'm on a different device.
posted by klausman at 10:10 AM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

which, seriously, do you know how EASY it is to write a 1-hour lecture and how hard it is to write a 1-hour student-centered activity?

omg christ I KNOW. God. And you're also trying to encourage students to follow you in doing something they're often not very well prepared for and don't feel confident doing, so you're doing a ton of emotional labor in the older, technical sense of the word: you're trying to monitor the mood of the classroom and hit a tone that is encouraging without being condescending or scolding. It's really hard to achieve.

I teach lab classes right now, so I don't currently have this specific issue, but when I was TAing lecture discussion sections I had such a hell of a time getting students to follow me into more student-centered discussions of problem sets they were meant to have done already and figuring out how to create expectations and structures that made it easy to get student participation. A lot of that involves setting expectations using silence and boredom to encourage students to say something just to make the silence end.

I've had both charismatic and, ah, non-charismatic teachers in both traditional lecture and "flipped" style classrooms, and I do wonder sometimes how many people underestimate just how much work it is to pull off a "flipped" class effectively and well. If universities aren't willing to pay for teaching labor and instructors are overworked or don't really have an incentive to teach well, requiring a "flipped" style can be much more uncomfortable for students to sit through than teaching an indifferent lecture style, even if students also get more out of it, because they require students to be much more mentally "present" for the discomfort. A lot of innovations in classrooms that don't have great effects for students persist because they take workload off teachers and allow teachers to pack more students into lecture sizes, making education cheaper but not necessarily better.

In this society, I think the question of whether we value good teaching enough to pay for it is a huge and unanswered one: it's easy to say "yes, take these teaching methods that work way better", but much harder to return an easy answer when you the instructor say "These methods require a lot more work out of me for the number of students I'm working with, and I need resources to execute them well." I'm not sure the political wherewithal is really there to provide those resources, but I find that people are also extremely unwilling to say "no, I don't think this is valuable enough to pay for."
posted by sciatrix at 10:11 AM on September 7, 2019 [23 favorites]

Or, you know, exactly what Kutsuwamushi said.
posted by sciatrix at 10:11 AM on September 7, 2019

I think it's a really important insight that the act of learning doesn't always feel good, because you learn by confronting the things that you don't understand. That's hard and sometimes frustrating, and it feels a lot better to do superficial studying where you don't even notice that you don't understand things. It's why first-year undergrads love flashcards so much: it's easy to memorize a definition, but it's harder to figure out that you don't totally understand the definition and then work towards understanding it. So you get done with your flashcard studying session, and you feel great, because you've memorized all the definitions and you're good to go. Whereas you get done with a more-substantive studying session, and you don't feel so good, because maybe there are still some things that you realize you need to clarify. But you're way ahead of the game if you realize that you still need to clarify some stuff.
In this society, I think the question of whether we value good teaching enough to pay for it is a huge and unanswered one: it's easy to say "yes, take these teaching methods that work way better", but much harder to return an easy answer when you the instructor say "These methods require a lot more work out of me for the number of students I'm working with, and I need resources to execute them well." I'm not sure the political wherewithal is really there to provide those resources, but I find that people are also extremely unwilling to say "no, I don't think this is valuable enough to pay for."
Yup, they'd require resources to prep, but they'd also probably require training in pedagogy, which is not something that most institutions are willing to invest in, either for their grad students or their faculty. How many institutions would offer their faculty a one-time course-load reduction to learn how to implement more-effective teaching methods? I bet not a lot.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:17 AM on September 7, 2019 [16 favorites]

It's analogous to the common core problem in K-12, in that the educational theory is correct, but lack of resources, know-how, in fully implementing a better but more complex methodology leaves all parties frustrated. It's like the culture of lecture-based instruction has resulted in a systemic pedagogic atrophy. But the other way to look at this is that personalized, customized education is much much more costly, than one-to-many modalities, and so the move to guided and student-centered instruction directly reflects that cost gap being unmet.

I think schools have an ethical obligation to humanize education by truly dealing with each student as a full, individual person with unique, special educational needs. But it would take 1000 years to get to that point, because academia is not generally interested in intellectual emancipation even if individual instructors in positions of power are.
posted by polymodus at 10:34 AM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I feel like there's probably something to be discovered by comparing teacher evaluations and student self-evaluations. I've noticed the people who are most prepared and engaged tend to be honest and say "no, I wasn't at 100% all the time every class" while people who are the least prepared and engaged generally give themselves 10/10 across the board every time. These usually correlate well with who appreciates active learning and discussion and who doesn't.

But that's all anecdata, somebody do a study.
posted by brook horse at 10:42 AM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

I've spent about a decade in university over the years, and I've never really understood what most lectures are meant to achieve. The content of most undergraduate lectures is information typically better conveyed in writing, while for those who learn more effectively from audiovisual presentation actors would normally present the material better. On my second pass through higher education, prerecording lectures for download was starting to become common, but the delivery was almost invariably astonishingly bad.

Unless a lecture is a presentation of the lecturer's current thought on a topic I think it's usually a redundant step: information is copied out of books by lecturers, performed to students and copied back down into books. Cutting out the middleman is sensible, apart from the fact that lectures are a good way of making students feel liketricking students into believing that they're getting value for money.

Maybe you'd be better off having a compulsory pre-class communal prep period, where everyone comes in and reads or listens to the "lecture" in silence, before breaking into moderated discussion groups. But if you're going that far you're quite probably better off employing some sort of classroom jigsaw technique.
posted by howfar at 10:47 AM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

When I hear the words "break up into groups" I immediately get irritated and resolve not to do whatever it is we're supposed to do. Perhaps this is because I'm a woman, and I know this means being "mansplained" at by someone who understands less than me but is more willing to take the lead. I have only once enjoyed this process. I was part of a group of researchers trying to write a grant proposal, so we had a meeting to find out what topics should be addressed in the grant. Each of us gave a brief report on what was already known in a given area, then our stakeholders gave brief talks about what their worst problems were. We then made a list of topics that were big problems. At that point we broke into groups, one group to a topic, and you could pick the topic you were most interested in. Then each group presented the results of the discussion, and then we all ranked the topics. it was great because it was based on a mutual desire to solve a real problem. If I ever had to give a class using this technique, I'd be sure to try to find a genuine problem to solve. Otherwise I'd expect the students to treat the words "break up into groups" with the same lack of enthusiasm I always felt.
posted by acrasis at 10:52 AM on September 7, 2019 [28 favorites]

If I ever had to give a class using this technique, I'd be sure to try to find a genuine problem to solve.

I think the ideal is precisely what you describe: where learning is driven by intrinsic goals. However, I think it's possible, even given the industrial nature of nearly all modern academia, to run classrooms with enough teachers engaging with students to create those challenges through introducing information, providing extrinsic pressure, controlling silencing voices etc.

You're right that group discussions can be miserable, particularly for women and (to a greater or lesser extent) anyone else who isn't within a fairly restricted intersection of privilege, but I think the main problem, on a practical level, is that there is usually no or minimal teacher input, or the teacher input is cowardly both in quelling the loud and promoting or prompting those who can't be heard or won't engage. Of course that's inevitable right now, given the current lack of will in higher education to support any initiative that involves spending money to improve students' learning.
posted by howfar at 11:29 AM on September 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

gusottertrout: I dunno, I hated peer co-learning because so much of it revolved around trying to get different students to all be on something like the same page and if your own concept didn't match those of the others then you had to either break with the group or accept their ideas as representing your own even if they didn't.

Sounds like the world of work. Finding a way to get everybody (including myself) to be on the same page is something I do at least every few days at work. If I were in a relationship it would probably apply there, too.

...not that university should necessarily be preparation for work or relationships, but it doesn't hurt.

All that said, I also hated group work in university. It has taken me twenty years to develop enough social and emotional intelligence to do teamwork moderately effectively instead of always finding work that I could do mostly on my own.
posted by clawsoon at 11:32 AM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

So. Students who learned more are likely to paradoxically feel less confident about what they learned..

brings to mind some ancient Chinese wisdom that the young person who is not confused is not on the path.

I think we fail our young people by not encouraging them to be somewhat confused on a regular basis. Certainly, I've found in my life that the getting of proper wisdom is always preceded by a phase of ... what!?!?
posted by philip-random at 11:36 AM on September 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

I've watched my spouse teach for two decades now, exclusively using socratic discussion. I saw a bit of their teaching the other day, and I'm sure to some of the students it just looks like shooting the breeze with various questions and interjections from the teacher. But when you look at the lesson plan ahead of time, it's clear that there are a half-dozen or more touchpoints that need to be reached in anticipation of a number of synthesizing conclusions that they all need to collectively arrive at on their own, and getting them there, once you understand what's going on behind the scenes, looks like some incredible jazz piece, like Duke Ellington leading a bunch of beginning musicians who know a few tootles but only gradually, over the course of the entire semester, learn what it means to truly understand collaborative music. It's really amazing to behold, and only possible with decades of practice, especially if you want to do it in a way the students end up really enjoying. Lectures are so much easier that it's not clear to me how you can justly induce ill-paid instructors to do it the hard way without doubling their pay. Merely asking that they work twice as hard for better learning but worse evaluations seems both unfair, and the likely capitalist solution once this problem becomes more unignorable.
posted by chortly at 12:01 PM on September 7, 2019 [25 favorites]

The relative uselessness of lectures as anything except entertainment is a point B.F. Skinner made way back in 1948 in his didactic utopian novel Walden Two.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:13 PM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

For the teachers in here: For every new class, we introduce them to the research on this before doing anything else. So this article is going straight up on our reading list on Monday. Explaining the theory doesn't solve all problems, but it does open up some minds when they know we are doing research-based teaching. We are three professors for the big class we have this semester, and this year my colleague took on the task of explaining that we are there to teach, not to judge. Of course we have to grade the students, but our ambition is for them to be succesfull, and it's good to tell them in advance.
When I am in charge, as I am in the spring semester, I make the students do hand-written notes, and again, I document that there is research to prove how this enhances learning. Just the other day, I was having a mammography, and I had a long conversation with the doctor about how analogue understanding of 3-d objects through sections aids the imagination, and thus the ability to properly read the digital information in the images. So it isn't just engineering. I've taught cultural studies as well, same methods. Yes, I am literally a jack of all trades.
Explaining your didactic principles and then following up on them helps with the student understanding of the class (I check all the note-books at the end of each semester, and do regular group tutorials to check up on the active learning). I get consistently good evaluations, and last year when I was on leave the students complained that their grades were lower with the replacement teacher who is probably smarter than I am, but more of an authority figure.
Some students will complain, but after a while you realize that they are often the lazy students. (And so does your boss). It's not like they only take your class, and when someone consistently gets low grades, the head does not worry as much about bad evaluations as if your class is the only one they fail. I do make an effort to be as transparent as possible when it comes to learning goals and required effort.

For the students here: if your classes are mainly lectures you can help yourself by taking notes in hand, and then following up on the notes after class with friends. A good professor will say more than what is in the slides, and you will learn a lot by taking notes and then doing the research to make sure you understand the material. Doing this in groups is better than doing it alone. This isn't only about you. I remember a guest professor we had when he was young, and he was brilliant. His lectures were amazing, and filled with new knowledge far beyond his articles and books. My notes from those lectures are still valuable. But then he became famous, and his lectures became boring and repetitive. You'd wonder how he ever became a big shot. Some friends, who didn't take notes back in the good days lack the basic knowledge he provided back then, and can't put it to use. With other friends, we'd go through our shared notes and put together a whole world of learning.
posted by mumimor at 12:52 PM on September 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

I've been in educating "adult learners" for the last 20 years or so, and for the last 5 years my students have been primarily online.

In the last few weeks I've been thinking a lot about how to measure teaching effectiveness, and so this article is great timing. It's interesting to compare this study with some other reliable studies involving online learning (which it turns out are very few and far between.) This study by Will Thalheimer is pretty good though.

One of the conclusions is that all other factors being equal, online learning tends to be slightly more effective than classroom training. However, if you dig a little deeper, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of e-Learning.

Thalheimer goes to great pains to explain that there is nothing inherently better about online training, the issue is that the learning methods used in the classroom turn out to be weaker. Specifically:
  • In classroom training we tend to lecture more
  • There is less interactivity
  • There is less real-world practice.
Sound familiar? The study posted here helps shed some light on why these learning methods in the classroom persist. Basically, teachers and administrators hate seeing those negative student evals. This passes the sniff test. Years ago, I was supervising about 12 teachers, at the end of each week there were student evals. There were a few teachers of mine who always turned out great students at the end of a term but at the beginning of the term they would always get slammed in the reviews.

These teachers tended to be very active and challenged students hard. As the study here mentions, many students don't like getting out of there comfort zone.

It's almost like asking someone to review their Crossfit trainer. After the first session, when you're a puddle of sweat and every muscle aches, you're not always going to be thankful and giving glowing reviews. 6 months later, when you see the results, you may be singing a different tune.
posted by jeremias at 12:56 PM on September 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

When I was in college, the instructor taught the idea: recursion.

I was a pretty smart computer nerd, but I had a lot of trouble with this idea. Recursion... a function that calls itself?

But then I worked through the problem and in the middle of the night the light dawned! A function that calls itself! OMG! What a powerful idea! Once I caught on, I saw recursion everywhere! In math, in history, in the growth of plants!

Experiencing math and science is totally different from receiving a lecture. I learned more about trigonometry in wood shop than in math class, because goddammit these pieces have to fit!
posted by SPrintF at 1:05 PM on September 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

I teach an active learning class to undergraduate physics students. I do get decent evals, but wonder if they would be better were it not for student bias against women (yes, I have gotten some directly misogynistic comments on evals) and against active learning.

Some students will complain, but after a while you realize that they are often the lazy students. (And so does your boss).

This statement is boss dependent. It turns out to be true for my department chair, but we get a new chair next year so who knows if it will continue. Also when I am up for tenure it’s not just my chair looking, various deans and provosts and whatnot will look. These admin sorts want nice pat numbers, and many of them are not up on the evaluations literature.

Perhaps I should include this article in my tenure case?

(Really, academia as whole should stop using student evals as the primary means of evaluating teacher effectiveness; relying on badly biased numbers is much worse than relying on no numbers at all).
posted by nat at 1:06 PM on September 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

This statement is boss dependent. It turns out to be true for my department chair, but we get a new chair next year so who knows if it will continue. Also when I am up for tenure it’s not just my chair looking, various deans and provosts and whatnot will look. These admin sorts want nice pat numbers, and many of them are not up on the evaluations literature.

Well, I can see that my leave worked wonders for the management's appreciation of my work. So I'm with you there. And I also agree that this can be more difficult for women. Maybe this is actually why I started documenting the evidence for my active learning approach several years ago. Another practical advice might be to engage the most ambitious in any class. You don't want to favor them, obviously, but you do want to make sure that they are enjoying your class and spreading the news. It's a balance, but definitely something you want to work with.
posted by mumimor at 1:16 PM on September 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

Traditional lecturing probably worked a lot better back when universities were, almost by definition, populated with students who had a more independent approach to learning. The value one can derive from listening to someone else speak is largely dependent on the amount of effort one is willing to spend rehashing it in the mind and applying the information obtained practically. (At least when the point isn't to be able to regurgitate facts and figures through rote memorization, anyway)

Active learning takes the things that interested and motivated students tend to do outside of class and brings them into the classroom where everyone benefits, including those whose learning style is not well aligned with the historic norms of postsecondary education.
posted by wierdo at 1:16 PM on September 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

I didn't really finish my above comment: ambitious students often don't even bother to fill out the evaluation forms, so that isn't it, but they influence other students. Just this week, I overheard students explaining to others how they had chosen our course because of former students' recommendations. And when they arrive with that, they are more likely to blame themselves for any perceived failures.

When I was a student, a lot of kids chose the department I was in because of my work, which was ironic because my teachers really struggled with it, and basically my main tutor was from another department. They got a lot of students, and thus a lot of money out of me, even as some of them hated my guts. It's a long story, and not really relevant here, but it goes to show that having influential students is a big deal if you need good evaluations.
posted by mumimor at 1:23 PM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Howfar's comment made me so curious - do your lectures primarily orally convey the written course materials or is it also/more of your "current thought on a topic"?

I for sure try to get the main points from the readings across, I picked them for a reason! But my lectures also include a lot of asking the students questions that don't have "right" answers. I admit that this often means 85% of students stay in passive listening more, but the 15% who do speak up have insights that exceed and/or challenge the written materials. My last class we talked about the difference (if any) between knowledge and information, especially in the context of urban planning and community development.

I also am processing acrasis's comment about hating "break into groups." This is my main tool to make sure every student in the class at least says something out loud, has to process the topics a little bit more actively.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:27 PM on September 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

For the teachers in here: For every new class, we introduce them to the research on this before doing anything else.

This article has been talked about a lot at work because it is directly in the crosshairs of what my unit does. I suggested that we perhaps create some prefab materials explicating the research that instructors can use with students before embarking on an active learning heavy course. I think there's a perception among instructors (who are largely auto-didacts themselves) that it'll be self-evident to most students that it's a better model. Clearly it's not self-evident and they do have to be sold on this.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:37 PM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

Experiencing math and science is totally different from receiving a lecture.

That sort of speaks to my earlier thoughts about my experience with lectures in the humanities. The thing gained by a lecture isn't the details, the raw facts, or the things one might worry about appearing on some multiple choice test, but the method of thought that is being discussed and exemplified. If I have to take notes during a lecture, then I can't listen to the lecture nearly as effectively. My attention is split between what is being said and the act of writing. If the notes are only for use as memorization aids for important dates, exact quotes, or whatever, then there is no real gain in lecturing about them as they could as easily be learned and copied from a book.

The gain in listening is in seeing the instructor work through the mindset of the person or groups they are speaking about and seeing how the various concepts work together to inform a larger world view. That requires focus on not just the words but the connections between thoughts and how they are explained. Asking a student to, say, regurgitate Benjamin's notion of aura exactly will slot that idea to memory and, for a while, help the student remember the specifics of his claims, but if the goal is to draw out the tension Benjamin wrote about between aura and mass produced art, then the exact phrasing is far less important than the general ideas being understood in the students own manner of paraphrase. It's in ways of thinking that lectures can be beneficial.

I know there are some students who do have real struggles with attention and many who may learn better in other ways, dependent on what one is trying to measure and whether "better" is sufficient I suppose, so I'm only speaking from the experience I've had that runs counter to some of the main claims, at least in my areas of study. I have to assume I'm not so wildly singular a fellow for that to be a unique experience, which suggests this is another numbers game, where some will benefit and others lose out. Which might be fine if the gain is worth it, but it would feel like a real loss to any students who were like me and now forced to learn in ways that are counter productive.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:42 PM on September 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

There are so many factors to consider here, and as an educator, it keeps my head constantly spinning.

- Active learning is more effective than lectures.
- But, many students hate it. Some students will experience harm in groupwork, if I as an educator am not managing the interpersonal dynamics of my classroom well - for instance, if I fail to prevent white men from talking over everyone else in every group discussion. I've had students with social anxiety approach me, worried about their grade if they don't talk as much as everybody else. I have an obligation to every student in that classroom. How do I keep activities working for everyone?
- My annual reviews are heavily student-eval based. I am pre-tenure, and it would be nice to keep my job. There's no guarantee that the various levels of administration that evaluate me each year are going to look beyond the numbers.
- Additionally, we already know that there is gender bias in student evaluation scores.
- It takes far more time to develop a good interactive lesson than it does to prepare a lecture. I am willing to (and I do) put in that work, but we teach four courses each semester here. That's a *lot* of weekly prep time. Frankly, all of that prep + grading + the actual classroom time + service obligations + the research I theoretically am also meant to be doing, it's not possible to fit it into the number of hours I'm ostensibly paid to work. We do what we've gotta do, but sometimes it's hard for me to reconcile that with the desire to provide a good example re: work-life balance in academia.
- Our program (and our university, and state university system in general) is poorly funded, and lectures are cheap. I may not have access to equipment that would make some classroom activities easier, or materials for hands-on demonstrations.

I do everything that I can, but gosh, it is frustrating to feel the pressure on all sides that lectures are just simpler, and to lack the resources that would let me do a better job at my job. I'm not seeking advice or answers here, just processing everything that goes through my mind when I'm developing my courses.

Ultimately, there is probably some irony in this: on the whole, we are offered no relevant training for any of these questions while we are completing the PhD that qualifies us for these jobs. I sought out as much education training and experience as I could as a student, but I'm sure that was against the preferences of advisors who would prefer that I focus on my research and graduate faster. We are a field of scholars and researchers who are largely learning how to be educators on the job.

Now, back to preparing for Monday's classes...
posted by pemberkins at 1:48 PM on September 7, 2019 [18 favorites]

It also helps to tell students why you are doing certain things and give them input on how certain things will be done if you want good evaluations. I find students really appreciate it when I ask the class as a whole things like "do you want me to go over quiz answers right after we take a quiz, or a week later when I pass them out?" when the answer really doesn't matter to me.

I think we fail our young people by not encouraging them to be somewhat confused on a regular basis.

Oh, I disagree on this one emphatically. When I am teaching, I want students to be interested, engaged, and following where I'm going. If I can get them to chase me and go tearing along paths of inquiry, so much the better. I do not ever want a student to be confused if I can possibly manage it, in part because confused students sometimes learn false things by accident, and in part because confusion is usually a cue that I haven't laid enough groundwork for a student to follow me where I'm going. Uncertain is perfectly fine and is in fact a good sign, but confusion means I'm steeering us wrong and need to course-correct.
posted by sciatrix at 2:17 PM on September 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

soren_lorensen, I would use your pre-fab materials, particularly if they are relatively short (I don't have enough class time to spend very long justifying the way the class works).

And bonus points if you also had some materials directed at the admins -- the deans and department chairs and so on. Many of us young profs are convinced, but if we are in an environment that doesn't support us using active learnings techniques, then we can't do it (or can't do it well). It's the deans and senior faculty and department chairs and whatever mysterious creatures control the money flow that need convincing.
posted by nat at 2:21 PM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

High School Social Studies teacher here:

While I am only in my second year of teaching, I had a whole career before I came to education. The ideas of how people learn best totally changed between when I graduated from college in 1993, and when I went back for my credential in 2016. I also had a master teacher who had no idea about active teaching. He could give a tight, entertaining, riveting lecture for 45 minutes... but he neither knew nor cared if kids learned a goddamn thing. He was a brilliant lecturer, but an otherwise incompetent teacher (and a flaming asshole, but that's a story for another day).

As a result, I had no idea of how to really measure if kids are learning or not.

In my classes, we have an activity where kids read a current news article, they annotate the article, they write about it, and we talk about it. I lecture (I am still working towards getting away from lecture), and then the kids do something with their knowledge. I try to roll in as many skills-based things as possible. For example, we just talked about how to annotate articles. I told that that this was because in college, the must pay for their own books, and that no one is going to help them get maximum benefit from the books. Annotation is a way to "squeeze as much smart as you can from your books."

The whole class period (indeed, the whole unit) drives towards answering a given question. At the end of the lesson, can they answer the question? How about at the end of the unit? If not, we may need to go back and reteach.

One of the things I was late to learning is that there is a difference between kids being compliant in lecture, and actual learning. There is a BIG difference. One is where they may be mentally asleep, but physically going through the motions, and the other is where they get something out of being in class. I will choose the latter every single time.
posted by dfm500 at 2:39 PM on September 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

An other important thing is to teach stuff when the students are ready, and this is incredibly hard to do, for a number of reasons. Maybe the biggest is that the people who build the curriculum aren't always much into didactics. If you are in university, they are researchers. If you are in basic school or high school, it's political, the horror!
My current engineering students learn a lot of math in the first 4 semesters, but they have no idea why, and when they get to my classes they might just as well never have learnt it, so we have to start over. Still, I don't know what would be the right way. Math (and physics and chemistry) for engineers isn't super hard, it's more about figuring out when to use the right math. But maybe that is easier when you know a lot.
Back when I was a young architecture school teacher, I decided it would be a good idea to focus entirely on drawing the first year, and my then boss agreed. Everything we did that year was about representation in some form. It was thought through is every detail and they drew and drew all sorts of projection, free hand, digital. We had the best teachers in every class. And five years later, the now excellent young architects came to me and asked me why I hadn't taught them to draw from the start.
Another story from architecture school was from several years later. This time I didn't teach the first year any skills (almost), but I pushed them into realizing that in practice, there is no solo achievement. Everything is in the field and collaborative. This time round I even had kids complaining to the dean about me. The examination committee fought a whole night about the work when they had to pass first year. But these students' experience was the opposite of the former group: they came back to apologize for the complaints and thank me for preparing them for their future jobs. They are as succesful as the first group, so I'm a bit cynical about teaching methodologies these days.
I do think that understanding the context of whatever you learn is useful. I feel that the second group, who learnt the why before they learnt the what ended up with better skills, but skills are not absolute and for the first group who where educated in the midst of the transition from analogue to digital, the drawing skills they sought and I taught were probably redundant, which is why they felt they didn't learn anything.

The role of skill in higher education is really complicated, and within the humanities it is often barely acknowledged (but you can bet I was a popular teacher in cultural studies, with my architecture and engineering background). It's relevant here because skills are perhaps the interface between knowledge and practice, regardless of the subject, and they are great place for students to meet during group activities. It takes skill to write a good dissertation, and applying that skill helps you to acquire and integrate knowledge. Spending time in class on building that skill is a very effective learning tool.
posted by mumimor at 3:04 PM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

soren_lorensen and nat -- the appendix to this study might be helpful in developing those prefab "hey, students, here's why we're using active learning" materials.

sciatrix, I think your objection brings me back to that query I raised earlier in the thread, about words we use to describe the experiences of struggle and ignorance during teaching. I think I might self-describe as "confused" some of the time that I am (by your measure) uncertain.

And so I think part of making a learning environment (for oneself as a learner, or for a group that one works with) involves learning the names of our own feelings a bit better, developing a shared language for those feelings.

BTW I totally get that some folks in this thread are burnt out of "how can I teach better?" resources/workshops/etc. For those who aren't, especially those teaching technological skills outside of traditional academia, take a look at Greg Wilson's free ebook Teaching Tech Together: How to create and deliver lessons that work and build a teaching community around them. It is based on experience and recent research in cognitive psychology, instructional design, inclusivity, and community organization, and it covers stuff like:
  • Mental Models and Formative Assessment
  • Expertise and Memory
  • Cognitive Architecture
  • Individual Learning
  • A Lesson Design Process
  • Pedagogical Content Knowledge
  • Teaching as a Performance Art
  • In the Classroom
  • Motivation and Demotivation
  • Teaching Online
  • Exercise Types
  • Building a Community of Practice
  • Outreach
  • Why I Teach
  • Checklists and Templates
  • Example Concept Maps
I also got a lot out of the free two-day instructor training for The Carpentries, whose materials are also all freely available and reusable, and which covers a lot of the same stuff.

And philosophy professor Harry Brighouse writes on Crooked Timber and on the Association of College and University Educators blog about managing classroom discussion, ethics in education, and improving undergraduate instruction in general.

If anyone wants to work with me (on the wiki for instance) on a front page post specifically listing these and other useful, research-based, free resources that help people teach & learn better, I'd love to help with that.
posted by brainwane at 3:17 PM on September 7, 2019 [11 favorites]

Maybe the idea that I'm dancing around here is that there are unbalanced incentives for putting the extra time into better teaching or putting the extra time into research.

If I put a pile of time into research, I get more papers, I get more grants, I get recognized and promoted.

If I put all that time into better course prep, students will learn better, but maybe be less happy, and there's every chance that it is not otherwise recognized as being materially different from showing up and giving daily lectures in terms of job performance.

And I'm at a school with a heavy teaching focus!

I love seeing my students learn and thrive. Nevertheless, it's sometimes so tiring that focusing on better student learning could have a material career cost for me. What are we really prioritizing in hiring and retaining faculty?
posted by pemberkins at 3:23 PM on September 7, 2019 [7 favorites]

Have any schools experimented with ways of evaluating teaching outcomes other than student evals? It seems like there should be ways to measure how much students actually learn, but that doesn't typically seem to be part of the way that we measure effective teaching.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:29 PM on September 7, 2019

Have any schools experimented with ways of evaluating teaching outcomes other than student evals?

We have a series of mandatory pre-post style assessments in a subset of our program's courses. Those are used as a way to assess effectiveness of our curriculum as a whole (are our documented learning outcomes for the major being met?), and I've not seen them used in evaluations of individual faculty for promotion/retention the way student evals are.
posted by pemberkins at 3:33 PM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

That's interesting. Obviously, there are big problems with evaluating profs based on imperfectly-measured student outcomes, but it seems less arbitrary than evaluating profs based on whether students liked the class.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:36 PM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

What are we really prioritizing in hiring and retaining faculty?

First and foremost, any school is going to be hiring and retaining faculty in ways that are rewarded by its funding model. It would be suicidal for the institution to behave otherwise.

It's easy to think of that really cynically, of course, but:

Do students learn more [discipline] in a school with a [discipline] program, or in one that doesn't have any [discipline] classes after closing their department? If you're a teaching-oriented school that draws heavily from kids in the local region who didn't get into Flagship State University, do those students learn more at your school or just reading whatever in their spare time after the state closed your school because it couldn't fund itself?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:44 PM on September 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

In prepping my class for next week, I actually remembered there are some good resources regarding interactive physics education specifically (including for high school, lower level, and upper level undergrad courses); and yes, they even have some materials re: why interactive teaching is effective.

The big one is, but probably the most useful part for me is the PhysPort link, which has a bunch of specific materials fo ruse in the classroom.
posted by nat at 4:13 PM on September 7, 2019

Skills-based ooh yeah dfm500 (psst I memailed you)
In my classes, we have an activity where kids read a current news article, they annotate the article, they write about it, and we talk about it. I lecture (I am still working towards getting away from lecture), and then the kids do something with their knowledge. I try to roll in as many skills-based things as possible.
I think that teaching students to be self-critical but in an optimistic, future-oriented way, is an important skill. For the final paper in a class I taught last year, I expressly required the paper to include reflections on their research process, what they wished they had time to do, what was difficult. Nearly all of my assignments require the students to generate questions. Everything they read should create a new question, even if just clarification of something in the article. I guess I am trying build in a metacognitive aspect that asks them think about their own learning process.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:44 PM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

I guess I am trying build in a metacognitive aspect that asks them think about their own learning process.

I think if we are ever going to narrow the mismatch between the “feeling of learning” and whether students are actually learning, we must help them build metacognitive skills. This would also help mitigate the mismatch between effective instructors and whether they get good student evaluations.

I teach adults in a college setting who have skills anywhere from literacy level (reading at elementary school level) to first year (not all in the same class!). I try to build their metacognition from the beginning. I explicitly tell them why we are doing whatever assignment or learning activity we are doing, so they understand and hopefully make the connection between “I’m doing this” and “it’s helping me learn this.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m often surprised at how often students have no idea why I am asking them to do something, until I explain why.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:51 PM on September 7, 2019 [8 favorites]

Perhaps I should include this article in my tenure case?

You should absolutely include this article in your tenure case. You should include a selection of relevant (for you) articles, and reference them in writing your self-reflection/analysis of your student evaluation marks. Do not leave the interpretation of any aspect of your tenure case up to chance or assume that your senior colleagues will be well-informed, well-intentioned, or well-motivated to put sufficient effort in to reading your dossier - tell your reviewers how they should interpret everything. Accurately and professionally, of course. But the purpose of your tenure dossier is to convincingly make your best case for why you deserve tenure. Like grant reviewers, your tenure reviewers will appreciate you laying out that case for them clearly, completely, and convincingly.
posted by eviemath at 5:05 PM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

One of the things I’ve noticed in this thread is that there is no mention of measurable learning objectives. At the beginning of the course state what the students will be able to DO at the end of course. These objectives can be realized throughout the period of the course and they can build on each other. Measurable means that both you and the student can know that they can meet the objective. Because the emphasis is on doing, this implies a much more active role for the student in meeting objectives during the course. The difficulty with this approach is actually coming up with measurable objectives. The student will understand... The student will know... are both a little too vague. Students can demonstrate understanding and knowing by performance of doing something. Multiple choice tests definitely and writing essays probably are not demonstrations of performance. An auto mechanics course would be an obvious example of where this approach would be easy. Given a car that cannot start, the student will DIAGNOSE and REPAIR the problem. A course on Presocratic philosophy is a little different. That requires some real creativity on the part of the teacher. I think asking yourself what can the students DO at the end of that course would be an interesting way to get creative in your teaching.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:40 PM on September 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

Eric Mazur, charming, brilliant, teaches a Physics class to med students at Harverd, and learns they learn nothing in his class. Something like that.

Eric Mazur
posted by Oyéah at 6:02 PM on September 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Cooperative learning is coopted by class politics, and the politic of privilege, when some people feel that cooperation instead of competition weakens our society. In fact, cooperative learning raises the bar for everyone and creates a strain of understanding and compassion as a base for learning. Sharing of information is better than sequestering it in the top 20%, or in gender based rewards for excellence in competition, lots of positives in the 360° sharing and cooping. The teacher can get so much accomplished when everyone is on board, can be on board. Everyone also learns how everyone else learns, and the acts that lead to understanding raw material. Everyone is broadened.
posted by Oyéah at 6:13 PM on September 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

A few thoughts on this, coming from a math professor, some echoing what's been said above.

1) When studies of this sort claim that students learn better through "active" instruction, they tend to have something very specific in mind, such as being able to solve problems of a certain sort. But that's not the end-all of taking classes. A good lecture is generally not about showing how to do a specific type of problem, but rather about providing context and intuition. The idea is that after getting the big picture, and hopefully an idea about why the topic is interesting and important, the students go off and master the specific techniques on their own. Some of us think that there is value to this approach, which gets diluted when using "active" instruction.

2) The "active" instruction works much better in introductory courses, where students are largely tested on executing specific techniques. Sure, you can reasonably expect students to work out an integral in Calculus I in groups in class. But try to get students to "actively" work through the proof of the Main Theorem of Galois Theory. It can be done, but it would take weeks--time that we generally don't get with students.

3) The difference in learning between the two instruction methods, as measured by average midterm scores in this study, is only a couple of percentage points. So describing that as one method being clearly superior (by whatever measure you'd like to use) seems silly to me.

4) Many students (myself included) hate working in groups. Leaving aside the effect that has on teaching evaluations, as a teacher, I think it is important to make the experience of taking a class as pleasant as possible, for as many students as possible, without sacrificing standards. That's because my main goal is to get the students to appreciate the subject, get a sense for what it's about, and where to find relevant information. That kind of thing sticks with people for life, unlike the ability to quickly execute some particular algorithm.

5) In an ideal world, we would provide individualized instruction to every student. Some do better (and prefer) working in groups, and others don't. So in discussions of this sort, I wish that more people would acknowledge that both approaches have their strengths, and having one completely displace the other shouldn't be the ultimate goal.
posted by epimorph at 7:57 PM on September 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

I think many people who "don't like group work" probably had the crappy sort of group work where a professor just assigns an individual paper that's four times as long and assigns a group to it, which basically guarantees one person will do it and hate the other three. My kids now attend a school district that's heavily invested in active learning, and it's STARTLING how different it is from the "active learning group work" I had in college. For one thing, the classes are no more than 24 students, there's a teacher and an aide, and they're constantly involved in the kids doing their group work. They kids aren't sent off to sort things out by themselves! But the assignments also aren't "Here's a one-person paper, expanded to four people, that someone should write." They're projects that benefit from collaborative experimentation and the final work they turn in is designed to be collaborative. The teachers arrange them in groups where all the students are able to contribute. My third grader is a wild-idea kid, and he gets put in a group with kids who are good explainers and good figure-outers, and while they try to solve the problem they've been given he throws out tons of wild ideas and they all experiment together and then the figure-outer kids figure out why it worked or failed, and how to test other fail states and the explainer kids help connect all the pieces together and explain why X worked and Y didn't, and they all learn from each other and my kid comes home able to explain why his ideas worked and didn't work and what that means, which he could not do before when he was just allowed to just throw spaghetti at the wall until something stuck and was never made to explain it.

When I was in college I always got so annoyed at professors who said "when you actually have jobs, you'll have to work in groups" and assigned dumb-ass individual papers at 4x length as if that was group work, when I went to the campus newspaper and SEAMLESSLY worked with a VERY LARGE GROUP on EVERY SINGLE NIGHT because that was ACTUAL group work that required many people to complete the many discrete parts of it. The group work my kids do is so, so, so much more like actual work that requires many people's input, and so much less like makework group projects, and the teachers are on top of them the entire time guiding and leading input. I assume as they get into high school and college the teachers back off and let them lead more. But honestly my three-year-old is doing more productive group projects in preschool than I did when I was in college, because they're designed for active learning, and not just "group work."

It just makes a huge difference that the school district has decided that "active learning" is the pedagogy they're pursuing, and the school board has allocated funds and the teachers have all attended multiple trainings and had weeks of paid time to develop classroom plans and have paid time to grade things and react and plan during the year. College professors don't get that, they never get that. And it's the rare college professor who has the chance to even take that sort of up-to-the-moment pedagogy class.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:00 PM on September 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

I agree with the many people who have already pointed out that active learning approaches are easiest to implement for material that can be be broken down into specific problems with clear right or wrong solutions, and when that's not the case the whole affair requries an amount of effort on part of the instructor that's rarely acknowledged by either students or administration. And I also think that comparing student performance on a test is not the only thing we should look at when evaluating the benefits of teaching methods (see all the problems with teaching to the test), so that argument alone wouldn't convince me.

But in my heart of hearts I also agree that there's really no alternative to active learning when it comes to internalizing knowledge in a manner that allows you to actually work with it. As I student I always appreciated a good lecture, because yes, it usually made be feel better about the subject, more confident about upcoming exams - how students feel about class is not necessarily less relevant than the percentage of points the score on the test. But I also always understood that active learning would be something that had to happen on top of attending the lecture - I would plan for time at home to annotate the material, draw mind maps, come up with my own examples, test my own understanding by trying to explain it someone else, think about points that were still unclear, come up with questions to ask the instructor in the next class, etc. I would occasionally meet with other students to discuss the material after class without explicitely being required to do so by any instructor, because we simply knew that we wouldn't be able to pass the exam otherwise (advantage: you pick the people you meet with, so it's really not quite compareable to teacher ordained group work).

But what is getting increasingly clear to me as I get older is that I was an exceptional student - who was also incredibly privileged to have all this leisure and energy ressources to devote to learning on top of attending classes - and that I really can't expect that from my students in general. A lot of my students are going to have a lot more on their plate than I did when I was their age, and since active learning needs to happen at some point and I can expect them to do it all at home, I need to make more room for it in class.

But it's tricky, because while the pay-off of active learning methods is higher when it works, so are the costs when it doesn't. A dull lecture, at worst, is a waste of time. Insufficiently well-considered active learning activities can stress out students for no good reason (see all the people who still seem to have trauma from badly supervised group work) and make students dread your class, which is the worst possible outcome. Sure, learning requires leaving your comfort zone at some point, but fear is also the mind killer, and I feel very strongly that you need to have a comfort zone first before you can learn anything from venturing out of it. Even if all lecturing does is make students more comfortable that might be a valid enough reason to do some of it, at certain stages of the learning process.
posted by sohalt at 2:32 AM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

One of the things I’ve noticed in this thread is that there is no mention of measurable learning objectives. At the beginning of the course state what the students will be able to DO at the end of course. These objectives can be realized throughout the period of the course and they can build on each other. Measurable means that both you and the student can know that they can meet the objective
I agree, but I've yet to meet a colleague who does. Here, we are required to use measurable learning objectives by law, but most colleagues make them deliberately vague, so they are useless from the student's point of view. I don't agree with this, but that is my experience.

BTW, I was taught in the -80's to "manage my own learning" at architecture school. I wish I knew what theory they were using back then, because at this point I've basically just re-heated and spiced up their methodologies in my own teaching practice.
posted by mumimor at 2:33 AM on September 8, 2019

Wow, this is such an excellent discussion, and really great to see so many informed and thoughtful educators here!

This is right up my alley as a k-12 STEM teacher trainer, and for sure this article and many subsequent links will be getting actively used in my work, thank you all.

My added difficulty level is I am in China, where teacher-fronted methods are really embedded into most academic settings and people are fixated on knowledge-based education rather than skills development.

A useful addition I have is the competence/consciousness progression as it applies to skill development, sorry if this is repetitive as I have shared it here before:

1. Unconscious incompetence: Yeah, sure, that is easy! I am pretty good at it! This comes from listening to an engaging and interesting lecture. It is fun, and it is interesting, and I think I follow it. Great!
2. Conscious incompetence: ooh, once I actually try stuff out myself it is not so easy. Umm, now I realise my shortcomings as a practitioner of this skill. This only happens once you start trying it out yourself! So in "active learning" step one of the path is realising you are not so good at thing!
3. Conscious competence: attentive application and practice, and you become able to do thing.
4. Unconscious competence as it becomes "natural".

People sitting passively in lectures are going to have a struggle getting past stage 1.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:39 AM on September 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

And the idea of "more work (as a teacher, in planning) to do interactive vs. lecture" - this is another hurdle that I have to struggle with when selling it to my teachers. Yes, it is "more work" at first... but guess what, you can get to stage 4 (above) with these methods, too! For me personally I am much more happy and effective channeling Socrates than I would ever be needing to prepare a speech! What, I have to think of shit to tell them? I have to talk for 45 minutes?! But I always ask!

Another pro tip: if you rarely tell people stuff, and only tell them once they have invested themselves in thinking about it, they are much more focused and attentive to what you are saying. If they struggled and could not come up with an answer / solution, they are eager to hear yours. If they think they have it right, they are eager to have their ideas confirmed.

It always makes me chuckle when participant feedback includes stuff like "he is so wise, such deep knowledge" or similar... LOL, buddy, I barely spoke for 10 or 15 minutes of that 2 hour session! You were doing the work!
posted by Meatbomb at 7:47 AM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

brainwane, your link to Greg Wilson free epub is solid gold, trhank you very much for that!

And again, in general, to all of you... it is almost like I am working rather than dogging it by hanging out on Metafilter!
posted by Meatbomb at 8:14 AM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

The "active" instruction works much better in introductory courses, where students are largely tested on executing specific techniques. Sure, you can reasonably expect students to work out an integral in Calculus I in groups in class. But try to get students to "actively" work through the proof of the Main Theorem of Galois Theory. It can be done, but it would take weeks--time that we generally don't get with students.
Hmm. My first observation about this is that, at least at the institution where I work, introductory classes are far more likely to be big lectures than more-advanced classes are. The applied calculus class for Bio majors has 650 students in the lecture. Math majors typically take much, much smaller classes, especially once they've got past the introductory stuff: Abstract Algebra, for instance, is capped at 40 students. Even if that class is taught in a lecture format, there's room for active learning. Students can ask questions in a class of 40 students, in a way that they can't in a class of 600. The professor can ask questions to make sure that students are following the lecture. And the students are likely to be engaged, because anyone taking Abstract Algebra is choosing to be there, which is not true of students who are taking the one intro math class that is required for some non-math major.

I understand that it's hard, if you're a math professor, to care about students who are only taking introductory courses and who don't necessarily have interest in or aptitude for math. But teaching those students is part of the mission of a university, and we need to figure out how to do it well.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:06 AM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know anyone at your school's math department but I would be willing to bet an inexpensive car that they already care and already know how to do it well (if not necessarily perfectly optimally), but that nobody is letting them hire the several dozen new assistant professors they'd need to do that.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:36 AM on September 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

One of the many things that frustrates me about active learning proponents is the idea that lectures don't work. But that's not what this study shows. To the contrary, it shows that lecture does work and that students prefer it to active learning methods (which just happen to include "mini-lectures.")

It also shows that active learning is more effective, but it's not that much more effective. Scores went up a few percentage points. But as many people have pointed out in this thread, it is a lot more work and a lot more resource intentensive. Those are real costs that need to be considered. We might also consider how bad it is to experience mediocre active learning vs mediocre lecture and how much instruction would be mediocre if either method had widespread adoption.

The question for educators isn't "What's the most effective teaching strategy?" But "What's the best use of our limited resources?" Active learning is more effective, but is it sufficiently more effective that we should spend resources on it rather than admitting more students, providing more resources to students from underrepresented groups, more money on community outreach, etc. It's not an either/or at Harvard, but for anyone with limited funds, that calculus can't be avoided and educators as a professiona shouldn't scoff at people who decide the bang isn't worth the buck. We should scoff at people who are still promoting leaning styles instead.

(Incidentally, widespread belief in learning styles and right-brain/left-brain aptitudes despite conclusive evidence against either strikes me as excellent support for the study's major claim that perceptions of learning and actual learning diverge.)
posted by This time is different. at 10:04 AM on September 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know anyone at your school's math department but I would be willing to bet an inexpensive car that they already care and already know how to do it well (if not necessarily perfectly optimally), but that nobody is letting them hire the several dozen new assistant professors they'd need to do that.
For what it's worth, my school's math department perceives themselves to have a serious problem with teaching in introductory classes, and they're not sure what to do about it. The chair of the department is teaching a section of remedial algebra this semester, in an attempt to get a better handle on why that class is such a mess. (This is kind of mind-bogglingly amazing, and I have such admiration for this brilliant mathematician who is seriously concerned with teaching students who struggle with fractions. The department chair is a foster parent and has had close, personal contact with educationally-disadvantaged kids, which may explain the commitment.) They're really trying, but remedial algebra is a problem across the American educational system, and I'm not sure anyone really knows how to teach that class effectively. There are clearly huge resource problems, but this isn't just a resource problem. And it's also a question about how to teach best with the resources that we have. For instance, a lot of institutions are experimenting with online individualized instruction, and it's not at all clear whether that works well.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:03 AM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Fair enough, AaC. Sorry to have put y'all in the wrong bucket.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:44 AM on September 8, 2019

There's no evidence that certain subjects like theoretical mathematics are amenable to this particular form of active learning. The assertion that it could apply is only speculation.

The difficulty with advanced STEM classes in computer science, math, engineering is that they are mostly about proofs, and these proofs are things that took the originators thousands of hours of thinking to work them out. The degrees of freedom of the pedagogic search space blows up, and that undermines the assumptiom that each mature mathematics student is guaranteed to synchronize in the classroom on the learning process in the way that introductory math material is. Advanced mathematical learning is cumulative but not incremental or linear. Let's say you allow students x minutes to discover some sub-part of a proof. But that does not scale linearly, and can vary so hugely between students not just because of capability but because the problems by their nature have many false paths.

Maybe that's why some subjects have to be highly independent, pedagogically. There's no
theoretical assurance that the certain forms of non-lecture teaching are applicable due to the dynamics above, and there's no empirical evidence that non-lecture methods work well with these subjects that are not like intro Calc.
posted by polymodus at 12:04 PM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Years ago the group I worked with took some active-learning strategies from biology and adapted them for physics and engineering. After we got pretty good at it and several years had passed, a skeptical biologist said something like "I can see how this works in physics but I don't think it would work in biology" even though that's where we had borrowed the strategies from.

I'm aware that's just an anecdote but it's a refrain I hear all the time: "Sure this works in [whatever setting we're discussing] but it won't work in [whatever the setting of the speaker is]."

I've heard that it works in discipline X but not Y while in another room someone says it works in Y but not X. I've heard that it works in intro courses but not advanced ones, and in another discussion that it works for advanced students but never for intro/gen-ed courses.

I'm not a social scientist but I am fascinated by whatever aspects of human nature are illustrated by this.
posted by secretseasons at 12:11 PM on September 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, however: pretty much every class like this at the undergrad level also has a recitation discussion section i.e. TA/GSI led problem solving class a couple times per week. So that's an important piece as well, whether that resource can be privileged more to use self-learning techniques. One possibility is to have the GSI do the lecture and the professor do the hands on guidance.
posted by polymodus at 12:12 PM on September 8, 2019

When I hear the words "break up into groups" I immediately get irritated and resolve not to do whatever it is we're supposed to do.

There's a whole social dynamic going on that teachers don't actually see. The thing about hands on learning is that unless it's by individual the instructor is just defaulting to a pre-existing power structure. I don't know what the solution to that is.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 12:15 PM on September 8, 2019

I'm not a social scientist but I am fascinated by whatever aspects of human nature are illustrated by this.

Well if they didn't point out that a) there's no empirical evidence for advanced mathematics and b) there's an identified possible reason this scales exponentially more difficult to pull off in courses about advanced mathematics, then they were just resistant teachers. A) and B) are more about researching the strengths and limitations of particular pedagogies.
posted by polymodus at 12:16 PM on September 8, 2019

Those of you who would like to help your colleagues adopt new teaching practices, it's probably worth reading the short "Academic Change" section and its citations in Teaching Tech Together.
posted by brainwane at 12:20 PM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm currently what some people would call a free-range learner/teacher, in that most of my learning and teaching takes place outside of institutions (such as schools and universities) that have education as a primary purpose. I think a lot of people in this discussion are talking from the point of view of someone who currently teaches in academia or someone who used to learn in academia, and I've done those things, but the thing that this study really motivates me to do is to learn better by improving my monitoring/perceptions of my own learning process -- noticing when my feeling of learning is decoupled from actual learning. And I'd love pointers on this from those of you who have worked on that.

A lot of what I learned about myself as a learner, I learned from Greg Wilson's work and from Mel Chua (a friend). Her blog is currently being repaired, but here are the slides for an introduction to educational psychology talk she gave a few years back.... it's been so helpful to get words for problems and situations I run into! Like (in a transcript of a previous version of this talk), she discusses "self-efficacy, which is the idea of how much you believe you can do this."
So the most impactful thing is doing it, because if you did it before you can probably do it again. The second one is seeing people do it -- people that look like you. The converse of that is if you see people that look like you fail at it, then you start thinking "maybe I can't do it either." And the third one, social persuasion, is other people coming up and saying "you can do this, you can try this, you should come, you should come to this talk, you should go to this tutorial, you should give another talk."
As a person who sometimes teaches other people, this helps me structure stuff -- but as a person who learns, I can also use this to set up situations that persuade me that I Can Do This!
posted by brainwane at 12:48 PM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

A question I have is over the way they frame the technique as active learning as if the term makes clear how this actually plays out. They seem to be asserting it's developing a collaborative method of inquiry, when it may be drafting in the slip stream of the strongest student in the group. I couldn't find a chart showing individual test score differences or group make up, so without that it's not clear to me that the method isn't just leveraging some paying students to act as unpaid adjuncts in providing individual instruction to students who haven't grasped the ideas as well.

They say "everyone benefits" but since some are clearly scoring well without "active" learning, those students may be just putting in extra work without clear self benefit. That could be fine, in some sense, as it does help the majority, but it can also come with an added burden of responsibility for some students and speak to why the method isn't as trusted as peers do not carry the same weight of authority as instructors are supposed to have. I don't know if I can trust the answer of a classmate until I know the proper or accepted answer, thus leaving any sense of gained knowledge open to doubt.

Group dynamics can make needing to ask a peer for answers or method to be fraught with social pressures or just be unpleasant in itself if the peer is a jerk about it all. The social response to offering an idea that isn't accepted can work against self esteem even if one learns part of the lesson intended to be taught from it, especially given people have vastly different ways of dealing with social pressure and anxiety. The gain in potential knowledge might not be felt worth the cost, efforts, or stress involved to some. The reasons people dislike group learning likely have less to do with the idea of learning itself and more to do with dealing with groups. And it isn't like that is always that much better in the job world, where some workers often carry the weight for others and workplace stress is common.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:03 PM on September 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

gusottertrout, I get what you are saying, and to some extent, I had some of those thoughts when I was a student, my boyfriend then had them even more. Even now I struggle with colleagues who are destructive in their competitiveness, so I totally acknowledge that type of peers exist. But at the end of the day, you study for you, not them. You need to make the most out of your studies, regardless of what obstacles you might meet on your way.
When I was a bachelor student, group work was mandatory. I really struggled with it, not because I was against it, but because we all were so different. I was very young, having lived alone from I was 16, and impatient to get on with life. I was the only woman in class. One guy in my group was almost 30, owned a house in the suburbs and had kids. We were from different parts of the country, and had different backgrounds. When I was in second year, I decided to work actively in student politics to make some changes. I almost failed that year, but the next year my activism had led to a new department structure and new friends, and my personal results improved beyond what I had ever dreamed of. For me, it turned out that group work in itself wasn't the issue. I just really needed to be with other young people, other women, other urban dwellers. It's fine that you meet other people in university, but the culture clashes don't have to be everything you do.
I discuss this with colleagues. Some want immigrants to be split up, or smart people to be spread all over a class. I disagree. I believe we as educators need to lift people from where they are, not from some imaginary level ground.
posted by mumimor at 2:17 PM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I get you too and I can accept that this method may indeed be the best way for many students to learn, but I left college because I didn't find the rewards to be worth the cost. Not just because of group work of course, though that was a part of it, but a number of things related to these kinds of issues around teaching and diverse student wants and needs. I don't mean to say my experience should define the issue, but I don't think any method should be seen as all that defining because there is such diversity.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:26 PM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm aware that's just an anecdote but it's a refrain I hear all the time: "Sure this works in [whatever setting we're discussing] but it won't work in [whatever the setting of the speaker is]."

Just more anecdata, but this is the response I have had from multiple teachers from many different countries - "Ahh maybe that works where you came from, but it cannot work here, [our country] has special problems / characteristics." I heard the same story in Malaysia, Korea, China, and probably a few others I am forgetting now.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:18 PM on September 8, 2019

I think there are definitely some times when the stronger students are being recruited as "unpaid adjuncts" for the weaker students (I had a bad time in a HS SAT-prep elective that I was shoved into because there were no other open electives that fit my schedule - "each one teach one" was not actually what I needed to hear when I breezed through the problems). But I think there are also times when

a) the stronger students think of better ideas than they would've had by themselves, just by being forced to have the discussion

b) the weaker students come up with ideas that aren't necessarily right, but contribute to the discussion in productive ways

c) the whole concept of "stronger" students and "weaker" students gets called into question.

My favorite example from personal experience is a graduate-level restoration ecology class I took a few years ago. The other students in the class came from all different educational backgrounds, but I was the only one who didn't really have a science background at all, and when the dreaded group project came I was sure that I was going to drag the rest of the group down. But I'm strong at research and writing, and so things were going all right, and then we got together for a big writing session and we couldn't agree on the ages of the trees in the park we were discussing (which we were estimating based on trunk circumference.)

"Wait," I said suddenly, "Aren't you supposed to convert to meters before plugging it into the formula?"
In the moment, I was a little terrified, because surely the Science Kids knew better than me, surely I was on the wrong track! But (maybe because of my time spent living outside the US, maybe because of my attention for detail, maybe it was sheer random chance that I was the one who spotted the mistake) I actually contributed something useful.

I had one literature professor recently who was really engaged with active learning strategies, and I think I got over some of my aversion to group work because of her - because it's very rare that I have an unproductive discussion with classmates who've at least read the material and are willing to have a discussion about it. But I've also been in classes where tons of students did not even come up to that minimal baseline, so... I'm trying to come at it from a perspective of "figure out how to make this work better" rather than "assume that this is the panacea."
posted by Jeanne at 4:42 PM on September 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

In my former workplace, students could choose wether to make individual or group thesis projects. Most chose individual projects, so there must have been some self-selection for something, I'm not certain what. But there was never, ever a group project that didn't get top marks, regardless of the level the group members were at when they started. Some groups were made up of already good students, some were a mix of levels at the outset, and some were so bad when they started I worried they could never pass. It made no difference, they were all very successful.
Some reasons I've guessed at: they have to plan their time and effort; they each have to articulate their position and reach decisions through reasoned discussion; they inspire each other; together they have more competences.

At my current workplace, all the work is group work, and I see a lot of groups that don't work. Early signs are: when they don't all attend tutorials; they don't listen to each other, or the teachers; they argue for shortcuts when they are asked to examine a problem; they don't schedule properly; they don't share knowledge. Hey, after writing this, I'm going to be more alert early on during a course.
A couple of years ago, in a hard theory class, there was a group that didn't work well. One student didn't contribute at all, the others were very ambitious. There was crying. Luckily I'd put in individual note-taking as a learning objective and when exams came, it was easy to see that the disruptive student had not contributed and they failed. The active students got top marks.
BTW, the way note-taking was structured as a learning objective, it didn't have to be lecture notes. Some students did all their notes during the last week before exam, thinking they had "cheated" us. But magically, the hard work of making notes for a whole semester during one week ended up as being a very intense form of active learning, and they improved their understanding of the course dramatically. Even those who just copied notes from a friend (guys, how do you imagine we can't see that??)
posted by mumimor at 11:41 PM on September 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Via Twitter, active learning actually benefits under-represented minorities even more than their peers (see intro for more citations), for reasons that seem to have something to do with a greater sense of self-efficacy and feelings of social belonging.

I also do want to push back on the idea that peer-teaching is anything like recruiting "unpaid adjuncts." Peers are not experts and have not already mastered the material to anything like the degree that an adjunct has. Peers do not have PhDs or years of teaching experience. They do not have to sit around grading literally hundreds or thousands of problem sets and essays over the course of a single semester. Most importantly, asking students to explain their thinking to their peers instead of sitting passively in a lecture does not make those students part of the vast academic precariat, requiring that they work insane hours without adequate health care, often across multiple distant institutions, just in order to make ends meet, at great cost to their quality of life.

I do think, though, that this framing is definitely related to the issues raised by the FPP: even though peer teaching has so many benefits over the lecture, both for people who know more (because there's nothing like teaching to make you notice gaps in your own understanding) and people who are confused (because they get to ask questions and talk things out early and often, which would be impractical in a lecture), it can also provoke a lot of misdirected resentment, which can lead to people choosing less effective teaching methods lest this resentment show up in their evals.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:08 AM on September 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

The other disadvantage of lectures is that questions tend to be dominated by a single person unless you only call on people using actual randomization, which also means the benefits of class participation tend to go to people who are already comfortable speaking up (who are shocker, less likely to be female or from an URM).
posted by en forme de poire at 12:06 PM on September 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

If any of you are in/near New York City and are interested in getting together to work through the Teaching Tech Together curriculum over a couple of days, speak up here or in MeMail? I've asked the author about who all is best prepped to teach/lead such a session...
posted by brainwane at 12:17 PM on September 25, 2019

« Older John Landis, "the asshole from Animal House"   |   Whirling Darvish Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments