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Active learning, active pushback, and what we should take away from a new study of student perceptions

Posted in Higher Education, and Student Success

“Compared with students in traditional lectures, students in active classes perceived that they learned less, while in reality they learned more.” — Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, and Greg Kestina, Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom.

That’s the conclusion of a brand new and already-attention-getting article just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and a close reading suggests that the attention is well deserved.

It reports a scrupulously conducted study of two different approaches to teaching physics concepts: a traditional, teacher-focused lecture, and a student-focused active learning setup involving group work on problems supported by instructor feedback and guidance.

To most of us with an interest in such things, the idea that active learning = good is not exactly new. So what is world-rocking about what Deslauriers and colleagues did?

One is their use of a beyond-gold-standard true experimental design. Individual students (not whole sections, which is usually as good as it gets in this kind of research) were randomly assigned to control and experimental groups corresponding to different teaching approaches. One class was conducted in each method, then the groups were flipped around so that each student experienced each method. Same thing for the instructors — each used each method once, cutting out the issue of whether students were responding to the instructional method or to the instructors themselves.

The procedures used in the classes were set up carefully so that neither method — lecture or active learning — had an unfair advantage. Content was the same, materials and objectives were the same, problem sets were the same. The only difference was that in the lecture condition, the teacher, well, lectured, demonstrating how to solve problems while students followed along on their own worksheets. In the active learning condition, students tackled the problems in small groups. The instructors circulated as one typically does during this kind of activity, then at the end, they showed the class the correct process for the solution.

Researchers gathered data from students on two separate dimensions, first, mastery of the content (the TOL, or test of learning), and second, subjective feelings about the lesson (the FOL, or feeling of learning). The TOL, notably, was prepared independently of the instructors, as a safeguard against their teaching too closely to the test.

Here’s what the researchers found.

Students in the active learning condition scored higher on the TOL, and judging from the data distributions laid out in the article, it wasn’t even close. And, you guessed it — they scored lower on the FOL.

Those disparities in FOL scores are stunning, especially on two questions in particular: My instructor was effective at teaching, and I wish all of my physics classes were taught this way.

If, as an instructor who works hard to create great pedagogy, that doesn’t make your heart sink, well — you’re a lot tougher than I am.

As the teaching expert and inclusivity advocate Viji Sathy pointed out in this tweet, this pattern of findings means that all those student opinion surveys, evaluations and the like could well be disadvantaging exactly those individuals who are doing more to promote student learning.

That fact in and of itself would justify circulating this study like crazy. And while I’ve cautioned against using one study as a blunt instrument to push one’s own pedagogical agenda, this time, a little bludgeoning might be in order.

Why? There are the pristine methods, analyses, and interpretations of course, which all read like a master class in how to conduct scholarship of teaching and learning. There’s also the way that the findings neatly funnel into a conclusion that many of us have long suspected, that students — due to being novices in a field, discomfort with the messiness and effort of active learning exercises, or lack of insight about how learning works — are poor judges of effective teaching.

There is also the way that the findings fit with themes from so many other lines of research, amplifying and deepening those without repeating them. As the authors note, their results follow on a long line of well-established cognitive principles including desirable difficulty and the development of expertise.

They also remind me of some of my own research from long ago, when my colleague Laurie Dickson and I were looking at the impacts of assigning practice quizzes in Introduction to Psychology.

On an end of semester survey, many students said they thought the quizzes helped raise their exam performance, an impression borne out by our comparisons across sections that were randomly assigned to do or not do these exercises as part of their graded work. But we were always puzzled by the fact that not all of those same students said they would voluntarily do this sort of quizzing in the future.

It’s strange to think that a student might see value in a learning exercise but still be unwilling to do it on their own. But it makes some sense in light of the idea that active learning can be uncomfortable, and effortful, and seemingly not as worthwhile as sitting and watching an expert present the material.

What I also like about this article is that it suggests solutions, not as an afterthought but with some very clear recommendations for how to improve teaching and learning in higher education.

One is to look at student impressions very cautiously, or not at all, when judging teaching. This recommendation comes at a time when reliance on student evaluations is a problem that is currently reaching a system-blinking-red point. Disadvantaging those who use active learning is just one of many reasons why.

Note that I said reliance, and not over-reliance. The longer I work in academia, the more convinced I am that attempting to bring in “balance” or “context” as a way to appropriately de-emphasize student evaluations just doesn’t work. Those numbers and comments are a bell you can’t unring when it comes to forming impressions of others’ work, and hard as it is, as a profession we need to commit to developing new metrics that reflect teaching quality, particularly those that privilege evidence-based course design features.

The article also advocates for something that is dear to my heart: raising student awareness about why we teach the way we do, and how they can take the same principles and run with them as they take charge of their own learning.

It’s easy to overlook, but the authors include an intriguing final component documenting the positive effects of a short presentation on the way in which active learning works and why FOL is a bad indicator of actual learning. Struggle can be good, and teaching students this fact can be transformative, an idea that also reminds me of the work on belongingness and normalizing struggle in the early college career.

Of course there are caveats to how we apply and extend this work to our own teaching practices. I hope that the attention paid to it doesn’t trigger a wave of teacher-knows-best, adversarial pedagogy the likes of which we’ve seen aired in the classroom laptop wars over the last few years.

If that were to happen, it could set back the current trend towards empathic, truly student-focused pedagogy, and that would be a tragedy. And a needless one at that, because as I see it, empathic teaching is perfectly compatible with the idea that our students aren’t always the best judges of their own learning processes — not because they are students, but because they are novices, and also because they are human beings.

I’ll be emailing this article to my colleagues and I suspect many of you will be as well. We’ll also be seeing — I hope — some spirited discussion about what the findings do and don’t mean for college teaching. This time, let’s see to it that action also follows.