“Active learning” closes achievement gaps

Interesting article with quite misleading title.

In the structured course, all demographic groups reported completing the readings more frequently and spending more time studying; all groups also achieved higher final grades than did students in the lecture course. At the same time, the active-learning approach worked disproportionately well for black students — halving the black-white achievement gap evident in the lecture course — and for first-generation college students, closing the gap between them and students from families with a history of college attendance.

10 thoughts on ““Active learning” closes achievement gaps

  1. Grinching here…is it our job, as university faculty, to tailor courses to close this gap? ‘Are college lectures unfair?’ the article asks. Do they put minorities, women and working class students at a disadvantage? If they do, then someone needs to train them to deal with lectures. But that is not my job and I won’t do it. I am not in the business of remedial education or acculturation.

    I work with students extensively to help them deal with both the content and the format of college courses. I am not gonna revamp my courses to promote ‘active learning’ because I am a professor—not a teacher or social worker. I teach the way I like to teach—and that is lecture. Students need to learn how to deal with it. I will not make the effort to accommodate students who haven’t learnt how to deal with it.

    Right now, at my place, every student is being tracked by a range of student-services personnel—dorm resident assistants, ‘preceptorial’ assistants, psychological services personnel and the like. It’s their job to do the hand-holding and facilitate students’ adjustment to college—not mine. I did not get a PhD to be a social worker, or a teacher, and I ain’t gonna do it. I care about my own enjoyment and I’m not going to do this stuff in class to help students because I don’t like doing it. I care about ME, and I busted my butt to get a job that I enjoyed, where I wouldn’t have to do stuff I didn’t like to do.

  2. I do think it is our jobs as university faculty to acquire information as to whether our students are learning what we intend them to learn, and whether we are teaching in a manner that is conducive to that learning. Educating the students is what we are paid for, and we now have good evidence (much more than is conveyed by the linked article) that spoken lectures are one of the least effective methods of education. Lectures may have been necessary when most students lacked books, but hopefully this is no longer the case. I agree that students need to learn “how to deal” with lectures, but there’s an obvious candidate for who is in a position to teach students how to get the most out of the oral component: Professors. There is nothing remedial about building lots of practice into a course assignment structure, and your logic classes probably already include weekly assignments that accomplish this.

    The notion that a multidimensional approach to teaching, assignment design, lecturing, and student engagement is “hand-holding” is not understandable to me. If it’s not hand-holding for our logic students, then it’s not hand-holding for any of our other students, either.

  3. Look, we might find ourselves in a situation where students need more “hand holding,” because we have finally realized that not all talented, hard working kids went to fancy prep schools, or came from neighborhoods in strong public school districts. Those kids might not have developed the skills they need in order to get the most out of a lecture setting. If different learning approaches help the most talented to become the most successful (regardless of their background), or just simply increase overall net student learning, then why resist change? Is the idea that since people once had it harder, it should remain hard forever? Even if that means fewer people are learning, and those who do manage to learn, likely had some unfair advantages to begin with?

  4. The question is how much do we have to do. I’m contractually obliged to keep 5 hours of office hours in order to be available to students. I’d be even more available if I spent 10 hours in my office, or if I slept in my office so that students could come and see me for help at any hour of the day or night. Sorry. I’m not going to do it. Of course students would benefit from more hand-holding and interaction. But I am not going to give it to them. How much do our bosses have a right to demand of us?

    That’s the question—not what would benefit students, but how much we are obliged to do to benefit them. I do not see why I should be expected to do everything I can to benefit students. I’m not going to sleep in my office so that they can see me at any hour of the day and night, and I’m not going to engage in ‘active learning’—not because I like to lecture, but because I hate interacting with students.

  5. hbaber– many of our readers are very interested in using their position as teachers to work against the various pernicious inequalities in our societies. I posted the link with those readers in mind. The question of what would benefit disadvantaged students very much *is* the question on those readers’ minds, rather than the question of how much we are obliged to do. You’re not the intended audience.

  6. I’m not sure if active learning has to require more work from professors. In fact, it might even require less sometimes.

    Last year I was doing a lot of adjuncting, along with some of that blue collar work you’ve expressed some interest in, HBaber. And usually, I just didn’t have time to prepare slides and handouts. Instead, I had the students work in groups to extract and evaluate arguments, or think of examples to go with the terms and definitions we were covering. It ended up being pretty efficient.

    I definitely didn’t have to sleep in my office! But then again, my office was a backpack, so I probably wouldn’t have fit in there.

  7. One more thing: I’m worried that it may have seemed like I was trying to gang up against HBaber. That wasn’t my intention, so let me clarify: I disagree with HBaber that active learning approaches are always more time-consuming. In fact some of these approaches might require less prep time. With that in mind, I disagree with Jennysaul that someone with HBaber’s concerns is not the appropriate audience here.

    It just so happens that I agree with everything Katenorlock said upthread, but I will probably disagree with her in the future, because disagreeing with each other is part of our job, right?

  8. I read a lot of education research and think some caution is in order here. A lot the terms used, such as “active learning” are often poorly defined. My overall feeling is that every technique, including lecture, has advantages and disadvantages. We need to know what these strengths and weaknesses and use a variety of teaching methods. Lecture, in conjunction with guided notes, frequent low stakes quizzes, and peer tutoring exercises can very effective. Poorly planned and organized group learning can also disadvantage many students.

  9. Great discussion. And I’m so glad this article got linked and discussed somewhere.

    I’m a recent convert from lecturing to active learning approaches. I still give lectures, but they’re either short mini-lectures in class between activities or else video lectures that the students watch at home. The research I’m familiar with seems to suggest that a combination of both is good. Does it take more time to teach this way? Yeah, I think it’s fair to say it does, at least the way I’ve been doing it. Maybe it’ll get easier with time.

    Should we do it? I think we should. At least, my opinion is that there should be someone trying active learning courses in every department. As the article says, these other techniques seem particularly helpful with students who aren’t white privileged males. But they seem to be at least a little better for everyone. I’m a white male, and I feel pretty sure I would have learned better and become an autonomous and careful thinker earlier on if I’d been taught this way. The teaching styles of most of my professors didn’t do much for me. Apparently, I’m not the only one. The rate of measured intellectual improvement over the course of a standard undergrad degree is pretty depressing, from what I’ve seen.

    hbaber, your “How much do I have to do?” question is interesting. If you’re asking how much you need to consider the needs of your students in order to meet your tenure requirements, etc., I’d say probably precious little. I’ve met some truly great and dedicated teachers among the professors I’ve met, but also many who really didn’t give a damn about how much their students learned and make it pretty obvious in their teaching. So far I haven’t met any whose utter lack of concern for the quality of their teaching has impeded their careers even slightly. It might be different in the future, though. Personally, I don’t think the current academic environment is going to stay this way much longer. But if things stay the way they have been, I’m sure you can get away with teaching as effectively or ineffectively as you like.

    But maybe your question is what ethical obligation we have to pass along important skills to the next generation and in particular to remove an important obstacle to equality. For me, those things are pretty important. I don’t know about you. If there were some other way in which you could help make the world a better place, or make things more equal among people connected to you in some way, but it took some time and energy on your part, would you do it? And would you feel happy with yourself knowing that you could make that difference and do your job much better, but choose not to?

    P. S. You say you hate interacting with your students. But in many active learning strategies, the students interact with others more than you.

  10. @Justin Kalef

    Faculty may be able to get tenure and advancement at elite research universities even if they aren’t concerned with students, but not at my place—or a great many other non-elite places. We are pushed, pushed, pushed to please students. We have to submit tabulated results of student assessments on course evaluations, etc. And that is taken very seriously when it comes to tenure.

    As far as active learning, organizing class activities, etc. I find it agonizing. I don’t even give parties because I find it so stressful and painful. I just can’t do it.

    As far as the ethical question, I do gave a damn about students. I give them my home phone number and I’m always available. I answer student emails instantly. I work hard during office hours, etc. But there’s only so much I will do. I will not sacrifice myself, do something I find intensely painful, in order to benefit others. The ethical question is: how much does a person have to give?

    One thing that bugs me as a feminist is the way in which women have been expected to engage in heroic self-sacrifice to nurture and help others. I would feel perfectly happy knowing that I could make a difference but didn’t. If I sent all my savings to Oxfam I could make a very big difference: I could probably save lives. But I won’t do it. As far as ‘making the world a better place’ that is something I don’t believe I can do, have never wanted to do, and have never done. The best I can say for myself is that I do no harm—which is probably about 80% of moral decency. According to my grading scheme that’s a B—and I’ll settle for that.

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