Monday, September 14, 2015

Are College Lectures Unfair?

I have been saying for some time that active learning will help all law students, but that minorities would be helped the most because they generally have a poorer educational background than white students.  An article in the New York Times asserts the same thing about college students.

Are College Lectures Unfair? by Annie Murphy Paul.

Murphy asks, "DOES the college lecture discriminate? Is it biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?"  "Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture 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. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population."

"The partiality of the lecture format has been made visible by studies that compare it with a different style of instruction, called active learning. This approach provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients."

"Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families."

"Active-learning courses deliberately structure in-class and out-of-class assignments to ensure that students repeatedly engage with the material."

"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."

"The act of putting one’s own thoughts into words and communicating them to others, research has shown, is a powerful contributor to learning. Active-learning courses regularly provide opportunities for students to talk and debate with one another in a collaborative, low-pressure environment."

"In a study to be published later this year, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Yale University compare a course in physical chemistry taught in traditional lecture style to the same course taught in a “flipped” format, in which lectures were moved online and more time was devoted to in-class problem-solving activities. Exam performance over all was nearly 12 percent higher in the flipped class. Female students were among those who benefited the most, allowing them to perform at almost the same level as their male peers."

Paul concludes, "Given that active-learning approaches benefit all students, but especially those who are female, minority, low-income and first-generation, shouldn’t all universities be teaching this way?"

An excellent question that many of us have been asking about law schools.  Or, as I have phrased it in an earlier post, the predominant method of legal education used today was developed in the nineteenth century at an elite law school for elite, white, male law students who had graduated from elite colleges.  Is there any wonder there is white bias in legal education?

(Scott Fruehwald)

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