On Monday Robert Talbert, associate professor at Grand Valley State University and author of the Casting Out Nines blog, wrote a provocative and important post titled “Active learning as an ethical issue”. Robert noted:
The recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study stands out among these recent studies. It is a meta-study of 225 prior studies on active learning, and the results are bracing: students in these studies who were in classes focused on lecture and direct instruction in the classroom were 55% more likely to fail their courses than their counterparts in active learning focused classes, and scored almost half a standard deviation lower than their active learning counterparts on exams.
This sentence from the PNAS study stopped me in my tracks when I first read it:
“If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”
Robert’s central point is that active learning should be thought of as an ethical issue, where it could be considered unethical to withhold treatment. He then asks why faculty might withhold active learning and listed four reasons: self-preservation, laziness, a weird and irrational superiority complex, and legitimate external forces (such as overly controlling school structure).
The argument is an interesting and compelling one based on the study, and it is worth reading the whole article and his follow-up post. I wish we treated teaching and learning more often as an ethical issue,but I would add one additional reason that the active learning treatment is not more prevalent. This one comes from our discussions with faculty and support staff as part of our e-Literate TV series on personalized learning, and Michael and I summarized the point in the introduction episode. In a nutshell, changing to active learning (described as personalized learning in the series, but this terms overlaps with active learning in the context of this discussion) designs often or usually comes along with a fundamental change in role of the faculty and TAs involved. This changing role is profound and not easy, especially if faculty try to make changes on their own without peer or staff support.
Michael Feldstein: And going along with that was a willingness for faculty and for students to really ask some hard questions about the roles that they needed to take in the classroom, right? This is no longer, “I go up as a faculty member, and I lecture. I tell you what you know. And you, as a student, dutifully write it down and regurgitate it on the test.”
Faculty have to be comfortable letting go of a certain amount of control. We heard that over and over again. And students need to be comfortable and confident taking a certain amount of control over their education.
Faculty have to be comfortable letting go of a certain amount of control.
Phil Hill: Just taking a step back, I can’t emphasize enough what we’re talking about, the fact that this personalized learning, where it’s done in an appropriate manner, absolutely doesn’t replace the faculty. So, we just need to move past a lot of that part of the discussion.
But that change in role is significant. So, when you say, “You’ve got to give up some control,” we’re not just talking a slight adjustment in your teaching; you’re talking about something deeply held, internal beliefs. And part of the implication there is not just that it’s significantly different, but it also means it takes a lot of work and a lot of time to make that transition in a role.
It’s not just that it’s significantly different . . . , it also means it takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
And then, to pick up on your other point, students are coming in, and they need to be much more part of an active learning experience. Well, they’ve gone through, likely, the K–12 system, where they’ve almost been taught to be passive learners, or that’s sort of their expectations.
But now they’re coming in, and they’re being asked to do a lot of active work—to really stay up to speed, not put off work and cram right before the exams, but come in prepared to the classes. And a lot of times, they’re teaching themselves. So, those two change in roles are very significant, and they take time for people to deal with.
Michael also noted this challenge of knowing how to change in his recent post on lectures.
Following the IHE piece on Essex County College’s struggles to get good outcomes from their personalized learning program in developmental math, and following my blog post on the topic, Phil and I had an interesting exchange about the topic in email with ECC’s Vice President for Planning, Research, and Assessment Doug Walercz. With his permission, I’d like to share some of his observations with you. One of the big takeaways from the conversation, for me, is that our cultural notion of the pedagogical work that happens in a good lecture is pretty impoverished relative to the reality. We don’t have a clear understanding of all the things that a good lecture accomplishes, and therefore we often lose valuable elements of student support when we try to replace it. This has pretty serious implications for MOOCs, flipped classrooms, personalized learning, and a wide array of pedagogical approaches that replace a traditional in-person lecture with something else.
Michael then shared Doug’s email describing his viewpoints on expert blindness and the nature of combining non-cognitive aspects of teaching with content delivery. Michael concludes:
We don’t fully understand what we are doing well now. Therefore, when we attempt to deconstruct it and then reconstruct it in a different environment, we don’t really know what we will miss or how we will need to retrain our instructors so that we won’t miss it. That’s why it is so important to undertake these sorts of experiments thoughtfully, self-critically, and iteratively.
The point is that changing to any new pedagogy – active learning, adaptive, personalized, etc – changes the role of faculty and the methods of providing support to students in significant ways. I would add this difficulty with understanding and implementing change to Robert’s list of reasons why the active learning treatment has been withheld. Using Robert’s argument that this this an ethical issue, this reason should not be one to prevent such a change, but it is a reason why many faculty have not yet changed or a reason that additional support for faculty might be needed in order to allow more extensive adoption of active learning.
Some faculty will be able to make these changes to active learning on their own – think of them as autodidacts in learning about learning – but if you want deeper changes, then we need to acknowledge that many, if not most, faculty will need support to do so.
In Robert’s follow-up post, he makes an important point about assessment and effectiveness:
But also do this: Gather formative assessment data on a regular basis and see what students are actually learning.Don’t try to base the effectiveness of your teaching on how much passion and verve you appear to bring to lectures; don’t base it on summative assessments where the data come too late for students to act on them; don’t base it on how many students talk in your discussions or how bright and bushy tailed they appear to be. Base it on data that you collect about student learning.
Then do this: Analyze your assessment data when you get it, and objectively decide whether your teaching is helping students learn. And if it isn’t, consider how you might change, and then make the change.