Tag Archives: active learning

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization

Steven Volk, February 15, 2016

London is a city of museums, and I have had the good fortune to take my students to quite a few in my (still) short time here. Last week, for example, in class we studied the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89) in England (more on its glories, real or imagined, in another post!). And then on Friday we traveled up river to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see an exhibit on Samuel Pepys, the garrulous diarist who chronicled so much of the second half of the 17th century.

John Michael Wright, "Charles II in His Coronation Robes," c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015)

John Michael Wright, “Charles II in His Coronation Robes,” c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015).

There’s only so much I could say in class about Charles II, the man who restored the monarchy to England after a brief flirt with republicanism, without spiraling my students into a deep slumber. But, on entering the Pepys exhibition, the visitor is almost immediately confronted by a portrait of the monarch in his coronation robes painted by John Michael Wright (c. 1687). What the spectacular painting could say was infinitely more informative (not to mention entertaining) than anything I could cobble together.

Supporting the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand word, we know that images are remarkably generative texts. Perhaps this is because, as John Berger has argued in his hugely popular book, Ways of Seeing, published in 1972, and based on a BBC series of the same name, seeing and recognition come before words. We see, and then explain what we see with words. But, he continues, at the same time what we know or believe affects how we see. Our past knowledge or experience changes the way we see.

Nearly 40 years earlier, John Dewey, in Art as Experience, also considered the relationship between what we see and what we know. Dewey discussed the critical nature of seeing as experience, suggesting that “experience is a product, one might almost say bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world,” adding that this was the “foundation upon which esthetic [sic] theory and criticism can build” (220). For Dewey, the art object was the primary site for the dialectical processes of experience and the unifying occasion for these experiences.

In his 1934 study, Dewey challenged the assumption that art does not have a connection with outside content. Much as Berger will argue later, Dewey suggests that art can concentrate meanings found in the world. The difference between art and science, he argued, is that art expresses meanings, whereas science states them, giving us directions for obtaining the experience, but not supplying us with experience. So, to take a very recent example, Einstein gave us the “directions” for looking for gravitational waves resulting from the collision of black holes colliding, and now that we have “seen” them, it remains for artists (among others) to express the meanings of such an event.

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

This relation between words and images, science and art, and image and understanding was on my mind when I read an article (kindly sent me by Roger Laushman) by Kim Quillin (OC ’93) and Stephen Thomas, titled “Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology,” [CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 14 (Spring 2015): 1-16].

Drawing of Michael Faraday's 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

Drawing of Michael Faraday’s 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

There is little question that visualizations are integral to scientific thinking and the teaching of science. Scientists rely not only on words to explain their findings, but on a host of visual materials: graphs, diagrams, charts, illustrations, etc. And they have long done so.

But visualizations are also, in a more Deweyian sense, a primary way to communicate complex science to the lay reader (and the everyday citizen) as experience, and so their importance in that realm should not be underestimated.

Scholars in the sciences and arts have published a considerable amount on how work to improve visual literacy can be leveraged to scaffold learning in the sciences. [For a good example of this, see Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles and Taylor Allen, “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art,” CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 12 (Winter 2013): 687-700] Two intriguing papers have suggested that encouraging students to draw in science classes will not only improve their ability to understand underlying concepts, but to become engaged and active in their science classes.

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Writing in Science [“Drawing to Learn in Science,” Vol. 333 (Aug. 26, 2011): 1096-97], Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain and Russell Tytler suggested that there are multiple ways that teachers can bolster student (novice) learning in science classes by encouraging students to draw. Drawing, they argue, can do this by: enhancing engagement on the part of students who do poorly at rote learning or might have felt excluded in more traditional science classes; catering to individual learning approaches as different students will generate different visualizations; generating their own representations, through which students will deepen their understanding of the specific conventions of representations and their purposes (e.g., this is how a line graph works and why you want your representation to communicate the most information in the sparest way); helping students learn how to reason in a method other than argumentation (an approach that research has shown to have great success when student generate and refine models supported by their teachers); helping learners overcome limitations in presented material, organize their knowledge more effectively, and integrate new and existing understandings; and, finally, helping students learn how to communicate effectively.

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Quillin and Thomas (“Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology”) apply this model specifically to the biology classroom, lamenting that biology has lagged “behind physics and chemistry in acknowl­edging and explicitly teaching drawing as a skill, especially the drawing of abstract visual models as a tool for reasoning.” They argue that model-based reasoning is “a powerful tool for fostering conceptual change and meaningful learning in students.” Further, they suggest that when model-based learning is applied to science visual representations can be used to generate predictions and explanations. If many (most?) biology teachers use visual representations in their teaching, a much smaller number expect their students to draw or make models. “Drawing-to-Learn” is intended to “to distill the complexity of drawing into a ‘big picture’ framework that can serve as a launching point to facilitate future work in biology.”

Quillin and Thomas break their examination into three separate topics: They set out to: 1) define what they mean by drawing in the biology classroom; 2) articulate clearly the pedagogical goals of drawing-to-learn; and 3) propose a set of teaching interventions that can serve both as prompts for interested instructors and also as testable hypotheses for researchers. Here, I’ll examine only the second and third points while encouraging you to read the article in its entirety. Nevertheless, and to encourage you to dig further, they summarize their main pedagogical goals for assigning drawing exercises in the following chart:

ChartIt is important for faculty to have thought out the pedagogical goals of such a project from the start. Assigning drawing as a way to help students engage more actively in science learning (improve moti­vation) or to help them see more carefully (improve observation skills) are very different pedagogical goals than assigning drawings to help students understand concepts (lower-order cognitive skills) or solve a complex problem (higher-order cognitive skill). But each of these is important. “Like­wise,” the authors continue, “assigning drawings to students to help them learn (stu­dent-centered goal) and assigning drawings so that instruc­tors can assess learning (instructor-centered goal) are very different pedagogical goals, but both can be used to improve student learning. Finally, teaching drawing as a learning tool (such as the use of concept maps to help memorize content or see the big picture) is a different goal than teaching draw­ing as a science process skill (such as drawing models to design an experiment), but both are valid and worthwhile. Overall, the key is for instructors and researchers to artic­ulate goals clearly so that appropriate interventions can be designed and aligned between the formative and summative quadrants to achieve those goals.”

The authors conclude by suggesting various ways to scaffold drawing skills to address specific learning goals. The overall goal of our teaching is to move our students to more expert-like practices, and to do this most effectively we need to understand what can get in the way of learning, including whether we are placing too heavy a cognitive load on students, and therefore exercises can become unproductive (as per the theory of “cognitive capacity”).

In this light, they argue for three different kinds of faculty interventions, one based on improving student motivation and attitudes toward drawing (affect); one designed to teach the skills of translating information to a visual form within the field of biology (visual literacy), and one designed to give students the practice and feedback on the use of models as reasoning tools (model-based reasoning).

Here’s the chart they provide to summarize these points:

Chart2Quillin and Thomas conclude with a series of suggestions for further research on the application of such a model of learning to different students and classrooms. Among their questions:

  • Which types of interventions are most successful in improving students’ ability to draw and reason with their models?
  • What are the barriers that limit the utility of drawing exercises in class?
  • How do gender, ethnicity, background experience, and content knowledge influence student abilities and/or affect regarding drawing-to-learn?

As we answer these questions, it seems to me that the learning theory that informs model-based reasoning in biology can be applied not only in the other sciences, but in the social sciences and humanities as well. If you’re using model-based reasoning in your classes, share your findings with us.

Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques

Marcelo Vinces, October 25, 2015

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), founded in 1989, is a leading advocate for transforming undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching and learning in the United States. A project of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), PKAL is dedicated to empowering STEM faculty, including those from underrepresented groups, to graduate more students in STEM fields who are well trained and liberally educated.

I had the opportunity to attend PKAL’s Ohio conference last May. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington, opened his keynote by projecting an image by Laurentius de Voltolina taken from a 14th century manuscript, Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia.

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

That’s Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088. Besides the obvious differences in garb, student demographics, and technology, the scene is a familiar one to all of us. The lecturer stands at front, and his pupils are seated in rows facing him. Some scribble notes, some listen intently. In the back, two students have checked out altogether and are speaking to each other. And look: there are the students we’re all familiar with: one bent over in ecstasy or agony, but more likely just asleep, as is the one who sleeps through the lecture as well as the chatter of the two students behind her. Maybe it was a late night with some fine Italian wine. More likely, the result of a boring lecture. With that, Freeman asked the audience: How is it that we are still teaching science at universities much the same way it was done in the 1300s?

Two recent opinion pieces have expanded upon this very question, touching on the growing body of published research indicating not only that the venerable tradition of the lecture may be less effective for learning than “active learning” techniques, but that they may produce particularly negative results in the sciences for underrepresented groups: minorities, women, low-income and first-generation students.

In “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science,” Terrance F. Ross, writing in the Atlantic, focused on research carried out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington. The studies concluded that learning techniques that permitted students to become active participants in constructing their own learning rather remaining passive recipients as in traditional lecture courses, consistently resulted in better performance by students. The research, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work,” was conducted by Kelly Hogan, a professor of biology, at the University of North Carolina, and Sarah L. Eddy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington. In particular, the studies examined how differences in race, culture, and a family’s higher-education background can affect the methodologies by which students learn. Ultimately, it questioned whether college courses—specifically STEM-related ones—that use older teaching approaches are the best fit for colleges today, considering the increasingly diverse student populations we are educating.

Hogan and Eddy compared a traditional lecture approach and grading based solely on exams with a model that let the students mold how they learned and were assessed. These approaches included preparatory and review assignments, guided reading questions, and extensive student in-class engagement. As we can see in the graph below, while the new model was effective across the board, it worked particularly well for minorities. The gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts (the two highest performing demographics in the class) shrunk from 5.5 percent under traditional lecture structure, to an average of 2.6 percent in the new setting.

Average Grades by Race

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times (“Are College Lectures Unfair”) Annie Murphy Paul reviewed several studies, including those mentioned in the Atlantic, all of which suggested that the traditional lecture format is “not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.” Paul suggests that there are several possible reasons to explain the difference. One, she notes, is that “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates.” This is not just a problem in the way we might easily imagine but more so since research “has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess. The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.”

Active learning approaches are able to overcome these deficits, according to the research, disproportionately improving the performance of historically underrepresented students in STEM areas. Why? The research suggests that active learning helps limit students’ sense of isolation while fostering communal feeling among classmates. Other research has shown the detrimental effect on learning of being a “solo” in a class context and points out that active learning can be especially effective at reducing the achievement gap of women, low-income, and first-generation students by creating more collaborative, lower-pressure environments that increase a sense of belonging for everyone.

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

So why, given the growing body of data and the demographic trends in the United States, aren’t these approaches embraced more widely? Scott Freeman, the PKAL keynote speaker, went even further, asking us to consider whether not using active learning techniques in STEM courses could even be considered unethical. In his talk, he presented results of a meta-analysis of 642 papers examining the effects of active learning. These broadly demonstrated benefits across disciplines, class size, course level and major or non-major courses. His own studies in an introductory biology course showed enhanced performance in active learning versions of the course, with benefits particularly pronounced among underprepared students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, what are your thoughts on active learning? Why do we tend to stick to the traditional lecture format? What are the real barriers that keep us from using innovative pedagogies and how can we lower them? What have your experiences been with active learning approaches in the classroom?


Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class

Steve Volk, September 21, 2015

Students, if we’re doing our job right, will learn more outside of class than inside. After all, that’s one of the great advantages of being at a residential college where the opportunities to pursue conversations begun in the classroom are abundant. Many of these exchanges will be serendipitous, students sharing ideas during dinner or when laboring away on neighboring treadmills at the gym. (That is what they’re talking about, isn’t it?) As teachers, we are always pleased to hear of extra-mural discussions that we didn’t plan, the study sessions or the students who, finding themselves in the same place in the library, discuss an economics problem they are having trouble with. Not to put too crass a spin on it, but this actually is one of the things that parents and students are paying for when they shell out for a costly residential liberal arts college: the opportunity to be with and learn from talented, creative, bright, and supportive peers.

Miniature of the Apparition of Michael.  Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340. British Library.

Miniature of the Apparition of Michael. Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340. British Library.

With all this said, there is surprisingly little research on the cognitive and social benefits of peer instruction in higher education, but what exists is both good and very supportive of the process. I refer in particular to a 2001 volume edited by David Boud, Ruth Cohen, and Jane Samson, Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning With and From Each Other (Routledge). That book was recently reissued in a Kindle edition (2014), and it’s worth quoting at some length.

“As teachers,” they write, “we often fool ourselves in thinking that what we do is necessarily more important for student learning than other activities in which they engage. Our role is vital. However, if we place ourselves in the position of mediating all that students need to know, we not only create unrealistic expectations but we potentially deskill students by preventing them from developing the vital skills of effectively learning from each other needed in life and work. The skill of obtaining accurate information is not learned by being given accurate information by a teacher but through practice in discerning how to judge the accuracy of the information we receive” (p. 2).

Peer Instruction and Peer Learning

We are fortunate to have a number of superb peer-instruction opportunities at Oberlin, including the Writing Associates, with decades of experience, and the more recently formed OWLS (Oberlin Workshop & Learning Sessions), students who provide peer instruction in most of the sciences and math. These are exceptionally good resources and if your students aren’t aware of their programs, you should fill them in.

Technology can also play a role in bolstering out-of-class peer-learning opportunities, particularly the use of simple on-line applications, such as discussion boards, blogs, or other mechanisms for asynchronous discussions after the class is over. But I’ll save that topic for a later article.

Here I’d like to focus more on the opportunities to support reciprocal peer learning outside of class. (The “Article of the Week” from September 6 focused on encourage peer learning through discussions inside the class.)

Working at DeskThere are a wide range of peer-learning opportunities, particularly at residential colleges, that share similar characteristics: they are mutually beneficial to all students involved, involve the sharing of knowledge, ideas, insights, and experiences among the participants, and underscore the importance of moving beyond tasks and assignments that highlight independent learning (e.g., reading an assigned chapter) and toward interdependent or mutual learning. As opposed to the spontaneous opportunities for reciprocal peer-learning that happen all the time, these are strengthened by planning and proper scaffolding on the part of the instructor.

So, what kinds of skills can be mobilized in peer learning contexts:

  • To begin, the social skills involved in the very act of arranging to meet with others (an act that is easier for some students than others).
  • The skills involved in organizing and planning for the extra-mural session.
  • Collaborative skills: dividing the work among team members and insuring that all are contributing to a collective goal.
  • Communication skills: listening, presenting, challenging, and teaching.
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills: dealing with differences of opinion, planning and negotiation.
  • Assessment and reflection skills: giving and receiving feedback, learning to productively and helpfully critique the contributions of others and as well as assessing one’s own input.
  • Skills of critical inquiry: Not that it will happen every time, but often interdependent learning outside of class provides students the time they need to argue and defend their positions, something that may be lacking during the class, and to modify those positions in light of stronger arguments. Discussions outside of class seem more amenable to silences, moment where nothing is said and participants are absorbing what was said and what comes next.
  • And, of course, learning the material. It’s an old saw but nonetheless true: you learn best when you have to teach something, and peer learning is a type of teaching for students.

Working with/through Difference

Reciprocal peer learning can also help students understand the importance of working with (and through) difference. Social context is highly relevant to the learning experience, and students’ learning experiences are significantly influenced by whom they are learning with/from and their own experiences of comfort or safety. Gender, ethnicity, and race, as well as other differences (disability, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.) shape learning contexts and can have an impact on how peers learn from each other. Faculty may choose to address the social context of learning by constructing outside-of-class peer learning activities that emphasize cooperation, collaboration, mutuality, and shared responsibility and where difference is seen as implicit, without directly raising the issue. Or they can draw explicit attention to working with difference from the start, emphasizing the importance of building on difference and recognizing and confronting oppressive behaviors.

‘Columbia teaching John Bull his new lesson’ (Philadelphia, 1813) cartoon by artists Samuel Kennedy and William Charles,Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

‘Columbia teaching John Bull his new lesson’ (Philadelphia, 1813) cartoon by artists Samuel Kennedy and William Charles,Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What Activities?

While some of the most productive reciprocal peer learning opportunities are unplanned (the student equivalent of faculty parking-lot conversations), others can and should be designed into the course to take greatest advantage of the opportunities. These will work best, as Cohen and Samson argue (“Designing Peer Learning,” chapter 2 in the above mentioned volume), when we understand learning as a social as well as an individual activity, when we foreground the importance of skills such as collaboration and cooperation, and when students come to value the importance of critique, are able to listen (and hear) others, and can develop a capacity to work with their peers’ ideas.

Here are some ideas, taken from the Cohen-Samson chapter and augmented by my own experiences:

  • Preparation for class facilitation: When students are in charge of facilitating classes (usually seminars), they will be required to meet outside of class time (besides meeting with the instructor). These sessions work best when the students have a clear set of expectations for what a successful facilitation will look like.
  • Similarly, small groups can be assigned to present topics in class that require further preparation outside of the class session. These can be aided by allowing some class time for groups to cohere, schedule, and assign tasks for their first meeting.
  • Students involved in research can plan joint meetings with the reference librarians, present each other with work-in-progress reports, feedback and suggestions, or collectively develop questions to bring back to the class.
  • For students involved in community-based projects, time out of class can be used for debriefing sessions (in pairs or small groups).
  • For any writing project, students can bring drafts to workshop with their peers. As assignments near their due date, these sessions can also be used to peer mark the papers, giving the students an opportunity to discuss why they gave the grades they did and the changes they would encourage to strengthen the paper.
  • You can set up out-of-class meetings as “ice-breaking” activities at the start of the semester, a way to help students get to know each other.
  • Faculty can plan out-of-class activities for students in specific classes that explicitly foreground difference around culture-specific or gendered activities, address tensions between the task and the process, or are designed to address group dynamics, and that are formed of groups composed of students who bring different levels of knowledge and experience, the potential for differences in power, or are mixed in terms of race, ethnicity or other differences, if known. The decision to select some strategies might be made with the intention of helping students develop these abilities by working among themselves, whereas others might be made with the understanding that the students will be able to manage these differences effectively so that particular learning outcomes can be achieved without having to address broader issues.
  • Extra-class peer sessions can be used as a substitute for some kinds of tutorials. As mentioned above, peer instructors in writing (Writing Associates) and in the sciences and math (OWLS) are most often available for these purposes, but pairing students of different strengths for extra-mural work can also be a useful approach.
  • Outside-of-class sessions can be used as a strategy to address specific difficulties that are pertinent to your classes: to give students more practice in verbal presentation, to pair English language learners with skilled English speakers, etc.
  • As a means of helping students provide support for each other while they are engaged in individually assessed tasks, allowing for students to hear constructive feedback on their progress.
  • To model work groups that students will likely encounter after college (e.g. in computer science, design-oriented classes, or scientific research).
  • To address non-content related issues that have surfaced in the class: perhaps you are concerned that you have not created the kind of positive learning climate you think is essential for significant learning. It is possible that forming groups of students outside of class to address the issue and return with positive recommendations is one approach to think about. (There are potential downsides to this approach as well, so think carefully about the issues you face before trying this route.)

In summary, we are fortunate to teach in a context that allows for a substantial amount of reciprocal peer learning outside of class. How do you take advantage of it?

Can We Remove the Risk from Adopting New Teaching Approaches?

Steve Volk, February 15, 2015

Last week I wrote about preparing students for active learning. This week I wanted to present one recommendation for helping interested faculty prepare more active learning teaching designs for their classrooms. I should start by saying that faculty assuredly don’t need advice from me on how to construct remarkable, active learning environments since this kind of approach happens in classrooms around the campus on a daily basis. I plan to showcase some examples as “Articles of the Week” entries very soon. Rather, my worry is that some faculty will hesitate to adopt such approaches out of concern for how they might be received by students.

Roger, Risk Management James Hotel Lobby Picture NYC NY (CC)

Roger, Risk Management James Hotel Lobby Picture NYC NY (CC)

And that’s not an idle concern. The literature seems to suggest that faculty might be evaluated more negatively in active learning contexts than in more traditional lecture courses. The Center for Teaching Excellence at Cornell cautions, in a rather understated fashion, that “Some students may not accept new learning activities with complete ease.” A 2011 study by Amy E. Covill [“College Students’ Perceptions of the Traditional Lecture Method,” College Student Journal 45:1 (March 2011)] goes further, finding that “many students may resist, and even be hostile toward, teachers’ attempts to use active learning methods.” Eric Mazur, the Harvard physics professor who has become something of a celebrity in the field of peer instruction and active learning, commented that his approach draws “a lot of student resistance.” He adds, “You should see some of the vitriolic e-mails I get. The generic complaint is that they have to do all the learning themselves. Rather than lecturing, I’m making them prepare themselves for class—and in class, rather than telling them things, I’m asking them questions. They’d much rather sit there and listen and take notes.”

While there is not a lot of reliable research on the subject, in one careful study of a large, introductory biology course (“A Delicate Balance: Integrating Active Learning into a Large Lecture Course”), the authors found that when comparing “traditional” (mostly lecture) courses with more active courses, “student evaluations of the instructors (on items such as overall teaching ability, knowledge of subject, respect and concern for students, how much learned, the course overall) were significantly and substantially higher in the traditional than in the active section” (my emphasis).

CBE Life Sciences Education

CBE Life Sciences Education

Junior Faculty, Risk-Taking, and Pedagogy

For junior faculty in particular, the risks associated with adopting more active learning techniques and moving away from standard lectures can be considerable. Many, perhaps most, will move ahead with such pedagogies regardless, because they feel comfortable with them and have found that they produce the deepest learning for their students. Some may not want to go there because they simply don’t feel comfortable using such teaching approaches. A few might be cautioned by their departments to “go slow,” waiting until after a tenure decision before shaking their students’ apple carts too forcefully. And some are sufficiently worried about their students’ reactions that they will choose to wait the 7 years until they feel less vulnerable.

Whatever the situation, it seems that a case can be made for creating a “risk-free” zone for junior faculty who are interested in introducing more active learning techniques into the mix of their teaching. This is not to say that such faculty will no longer be responsible for what goes on in their classes, a free pass of sorts equivalent to the student demand that no one should fail the course. In fact, if anything, faculty will be required to be more intentional about their pedagogic choices and to assess the results of their methods. What it will mean is that evaluation of the course will be untethered from the traditional Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs).

risk Free

Here’s how such a proposal could work. I encourage others to chime in to clarify and improve it.

The Proposal

  1. Each semester or year (the choice between them depending on available resources), pre-tenure faculty will be allowed to designate one course as an “innovative pedagogy” class. Instructors would prepare a brief (2-3 page) prospectus of the basic pedagogic innovations they plan to employ in the course, what informs their approach (citing some of the literature that supports the approach), some examples of how this pedagogy would look in action (perhaps a description of one week of classes), and how they intend to assess the impact of their approach on student learning in the class. Interested faculty would be able to get advice and feedback at regularly scheduled workshops organized by CTIE.
  1. Proposals would be approved by department/program chairs, who, in turn, would send their approval to the dean’s office and to the director of CTIE to allow further consultation and formative observation if requested.
  1. Instructors would be expected to consult with CTIE (or other faculty recommended by CTIE) over the course of the semester.
  1. At the end of the semester, faculty would assess their courses along the lines traced out in their original (or revised) proposal and would also distribute standard SET forms to their students. These would be collected and stored in the stipulated fashion, and would go to the faculty member when grades were turned in. But they would only be sent to the College Faculty Council if so requested by the faculty member.
  1. In lieu of, or together with, the standard SET forms, the faculty member would prepare a short narrative evaluation of the course including the original design proposal, any changes made, the instructor’s evaluation of student learning and engagement in the course based on their own assessment materials, and any recommendations for changes to the course design in the future.

There are, no doubt, many issues with the proposal and many ways it could be strengthened. But encouraging junior faculty to experiment with their teaching approaches in an informed, but not unduly risky, fashion seems worth exploring further.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning

Steven Volk, February 8, 2015

David Gooblar had a good column on “Why Students Resist Active Learning” in a recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That led me to all sorts of similar posts such as “Hang in There! Dealing with Student Resistance to Learning-Centered Teaching” by Rick Reis at Stanford, or “’What if Students Revolt?’ – Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation,” by Shannon Seidel and Kimberly Tanner for CBE Life Sciences Education. When the articles began to sound more like counterinsurgency techniques than pedagogy, I stopped looking. But why look elsewhere when we have lots of examples in our own classrooms. Probably from this past week.

Here are a few things to think about when considering active learning techniques that have worked for many of us. There are a number of reasons why faculty are wary of active learning approaches, and I’ll address one of them, and propose a solution, in next week’s “Article of the Week.” But for now, we’ll stick with the students.

Olle Svenson, Learning to ride a bike, Vasaparken, Stockholm (CC)

Olle Svenson, Learning to ride a bike, Vasaparken, Stockholm (CC)

Start at the start: what is active learning? Quite simply, active learning proposes shifting pedagogy from teacher centered to learner centered, from a teaching practice based on the supposition that the best approach to learning is for teachers to pass their knowledge on to students, to a learning theory that is focused on how the learner integrates, constructs and creates understanding and knowledge. Active learning approaches also shift the context of teaching and learning from thinking about learning as a process whereby the teacher imparts knowledge to a classroom full of students, to a perspective that values the teacher’s ability to creates a learning environment that is attends to psychological, pedagogical, technological, cultural, historical, and pragmatic elements; a perspective that requires that we be aware of the different experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds of each of our students.

The learning theory that supports such an approach has been developing for at least a century, through the work of cognitive science, educational psychologists, educational philosophers, and classroom practitioners, people such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Barbara Rogoff, Maxine Greene, and many others. Active learning argues that we achieve mastery by doing, not (only) by listening or reading. “Learning is not about passivity and order,” Peter Johnston writes in Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2004, p. xxii), “it is about the messy process of discovery and construction of knowledge.” Or, as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger wrote in what has become one of my (and my students) favorite quotes: “the purpose is not to learn from talk…it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate…participation” [Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 108-09]

Components of Wenger's social theory of learning

Components of Wenger’s social theory of learning

Learning is actively constructed and, therefore, we need to think of it as a relationship between people, taking place in communities, and as intimately connected to activity. If this is an accurate way of understanding how significant learning occurs and mastery is achieved, and there is a large body of research on the topic, see here and here for two meta-analyses, then it means we have to rethink pedagogies that only or largely focus on student listening.

I can already see at least two objections coming my way, so let me address them off the bat. The first I heard from a student in a class I taught last Wednesday. After spending a good part of the class asking students how they thought about their own process of learning and then introducing some literature on learning theory (this is a class on Latin American history, by the way), a student said, “But I learn best when I’m reading, alone in my room.” The second objection will come from my faculty colleagues: “Are you saying that we never should lecture? That we should just stand back and let the students talk about whatever’s on their minds?”

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

In answer to the student comment, I told him that reading is not just important, but essential. Achieving significant learning does not occur in some abstract space; it is always rooted in the subject that one engages, whether Latin American history, in my case, or any other subject. To engage in this learning requires a foundation of information gained through reading or by other means. But the literature also argues that students will only gain mastery over the information, they will only make it their own, through a process of reflection and, often, socialization.

Similarly, answering faculty concerns, adopting active learning approaches doesn’t mean that we stop lecturing, no longer guide our students’ learning, neglect to provide them with a framework for learning, or deprive them of our own narratives. It means fundamentally that lecturing should be one part of a larger repertoire of approaches and that we have a unique opportunity in each class to structure a learning environment in which students can reflect, defend, talk, and explore with each other because, well, there they are, all…together. Actively engaged learning is not a revelation for any scientist who teaches lab, or to any humanist or social scientist who organizes discussion sections for her students. But there are great benefits to student learning when we include active learning techniques into all of our classes.

But let’s return to student concerns about active learning approaches. We have all heard students say that they signed up for the course to hear what we, their professors and experts on the subject, have to say; that they don’t like to talk in class or may actually be intensely uncomfortable when asked to “perform” in class. Students will complain on their evaluations (we’ll get to that next week!) that class discussions were a waste of time; that their peers weren’t prepared, and therefore the discussions were aimless, uninformed and uninformative, and far from the subject of the class. “We didn’t sign up for this class to hear what Kayla has to say about the reading when it’s totally clear that she hasn’t done it,” they will complain. “We came to hear you!”

So, let’s begin by admitting that a lot of what students grumble about is often right on the mark. When students haven’t prepared for a discussion, we can be fairly sure that it will be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Further, discussions which are poorly set up by the faculty (“Your task is to discuss the readings”), will usually not yield the results you’re looking for. It is true that some students are deeply uncomfortable speaking in class for a number of reasons, some good and some not so much so. (See the “Article of the Week” from September 9, 2013: “The Sounds of Silence” for more on this. When I wrote above that we need to be aware of the different experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds of each of our students, attending to this kind of situation is an example of what I meant.)

Clearly, then, active learning environments work best when students are prepared and when faculty structure the discussions well. (Students will often think that we turn to discussion because it’s a lot easier than preparing a lecture, when just the opposite is the case. It takes a lot of time, and produces untold anxiety, to “unscript” a class.)

Given all this, here are a few things to think about in terms of preparing students for an active learning environment.

  • I usually spend time at the start of the semester talking about learning theory, what the research tell us about how students learn, and what that means in terms of my own pedagogy and teaching design. It’s kind of funny (or maybe sad), but when I asked my class of 50 students if they had been in any class, from kindergarten to the present, where the teacher asked them if they thought about how learning occurred (as opposed to, say, whether they learned best when studying in the library vs. their dorm room), not one raised a hand. Maybe they were shy, but if we’re in the business of teaching and learning, engaging the question of learning is not a bad way of introducing students to why you make the pedagogical choices you do.
  • I also have them read and discuss some articles, particularly that of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, on “communities of practice,” which not only introduces them to constructivist learning theory, but raises the question of their participation in their own learning, and how they move from legitimate “peripheral” learners to “core” participants. This suggests not only that I, but that they, too, are responsible for the learning that goes on in the class, for their own learning as well as that of their classmates.
  • Since they are responsible for the learning that happens in the class, two things follow: (1) they have to come to class prepared to participate, and (2) they have to take seriously the contributions of their peers in discussions, not just what I am saying.
  • I know full well that what we talked about in the first week of class will vanish as quickly as the first blooms on my magnolia tree (will I even see them this year!). So I revisit the theme quite often. Remember when we talked about…?
TEAL Classroom (University of Texas), Roberta Baker (CC)

TEAL Classroom (University of Texas), Roberta Baker (CC)

Of course, this and $3.25 will get you a medium skim latte at the Slow Train. More is needed from us; there are ways we can structure our classes to help encourage the learning that is supposed to come from a student-centered environment. Here are a few ideas:

  • If discussions depend on the students having done the reading or other preparation, give them quizzes or establish other mechanisms to make sure they are prepared (reading responses, a Blackboard discussion group, posting questions, etc.). A flurry of recent research reports suggest, in fact, that frequent quizzes are one of the best ways to solidify student learning, and quizzes are actually a part of active student learning. (I’ll turn to this research in a future “Article of the Week.”)
  • Structure discussions appropriately: What are your goals for the discussion? How have you set up your prompts? How will you know if the students have reached the goals you have set? Have you varied the composition of the discussion groups so that they are with different students and not just their friends?
  • Help students be more responsible for learning in discussions: you can have them take notes in the discussions, generate a set of questions from their conversation, write group conclusions on the board, to a Google Doc, or in some other way. Have a 2-3 minute “think-pair-share” where each student summarizes the most important points to come out of his/her group and shares it with someone from a different group.
  • Use active learning techniques all the time, not just on the day devoted to discussion sections. If students know that they will be in lecture mode for two days a week (even if they are encouraged to ask questions for clarification), they will be less practiced at discussing when the day devoted to discussion or lab comes around.

Try different approaches so that students who really are uncomfortable talking have other opportunities to share their learning. Free writing exercises are one way to help those students. And don’t be afraid to lecture. Shorter lectures (less than the full 50 or 75 minutes of the class) are important ways to establish central themes, provide critical background, or, importantly, to summarize and synthesize at the end of class. This can be particularly important in a class where the activities are varied and would benefit from some pulling together at the end.

Finally, stick with it and ask advice of colleagues if this approach doesn’t seem to be working well. For students who are more accustomed to classes in which they are mostly listening to a lecture and taking notes, the learning curve can be steep. Don’t give up because your attempt to get student discussions going seems to crash and burn after you try it once. Again, talk to colleagues and think about having them sit in on a class to give you advice. It will pay off for the students, and for you, in the end.