Thursday, July 16, 2015

Active learning vs. lecturing: the annual hectoring

The new issue of Nature contains this article, discussing the active learning approach to teaching.  Actually, "discussing" is too neutral.  The title of the article and the subheadline flatly state that  lecture-based pedagogy is "wrong".  The article includes this quote about active learning: " 'At this point it is unethical to teach any other way' ", and presents that quote as a bold-face callout.   

The article says "Researchers often feel that a teacher's job is simply to communicate content: the factual knowledge covered in the course."  This is an assertion, and based on my experience, one that is incorrect.  If basic communication of facts is the job of teachers, we should just quit now, since books and more recently google have made us obsolete.  The whole point of in-person instruction is more than conveying a list of facts - in the case of physics, it's a matter of teaching people how to think about the world, how to think critically and translate concepts and ideas into the language of mathematics for the purposes of gaining predictive understanding and an appreciation for the beautiful way the universe works.

The article also implies that faculty are reluctant to migrate to active learning because it would require that we work harder (i.e., greater prep time, and therefore less time for research) to achieve its benefits.  I do think it was good for the author to raise the issue of incentives and rewards at the end:  If universities want to claim that they value teaching, they actually need to reward pedagogy.

By trying to cast active learning vs lecture-based pedagogy as a one-size-fits-all, good vs bad, modernists vs sticks-in-the-mud faceoff, the author does a disservice to the genuinely subtle questions at play here.  Yes, it looks like well-done active learning does enable large segments of the target audience (typically in intro courses) to retain concepts better.  Not all active learning approaches are implemented well, however; some lecturers can be outstanding, and the ones that engage the class in discussion and back-and-forth are blurring the line into active learning anyway; active learning definitely is a compromise in that the investment of personnel and time to achieve the benefits does mean leaving out some content; and different people learn best from different methods!  The author raises these issues, but the main thesis of the article is clear.
I want to raise a question that you will find in many physics departments around the US:  Who is the target audience in our classes, particularly beyond the large freshmen service teaching courses?   In a big intro class with 350 future engineers, or 400 pre-meds, maybe sacrificing some content for the sake of engaging a larger fraction of the students to better internalize and retain physical concepts is a good idea.   If we do this, however, in a way that bores or fails to challenge the top students, or leaves gaps in terms of content, is that a net good?  

My point:  Pedagogy is complicated, and in the sciences and engineering we are trying to do several competing tasks in parallel.  Oversimplifying to the level that "active learning = unalloyed good all the time; traditional lecture = unethical, abusive method clung to by lazy, hidebound, research-driven-teaching-averse faculty" is not helpful. 


Anonymous said...

off topic: congrats on being mentioned in APS News' "members in the media", with your rainstorm discussion :-)

Anonymous said...

Having not yet read the article, your points about the subtlety of pedagogy are well taken. Also, any thesis that challenges our preconceived notions will typically be received with skepticism or worse, and will place the establishment in the defensive. This is perhaps the intention of the author in the Nature piece, and unlike you I think it is helpful. Perhaps not the most effective way of changing someones mind, but some of these minds simply don't want to change (as I am sure you have experienced in faculty and committee meetings at Rice), I see it here at my own institution.
By challenging this aggressively the status quo, at the very least the issue can be now discussed. Appeasing the old guard just to keep with tradition is not a helpful strategy either.
I'm sure you would agree that your best experience in learning anything as a scientist is when you are actively trying to answer a question or solve a problem in the field. This is in essence active learning! The details of how this is implemented in large "service" courses, or for physics majors (and even graduate students) is a matter of active research itself; but the recognition that this is better than old plain lecturing is the main point of the piece in Nature. Not making this connection, of how active researchers learn the best with how we can improve outcomes in our teaching, is something that baffles me.

Anonymous said...

The author has never taught a day in his life (according to his bio). I've heard enough.