Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Inside Higher Ed has a fascinating story about a new Harvard study (available here) that found students reported "feeling" like they learned more when they passively listened to a fluent, well-spoken lecturer compared to a professor teaching the identical material using an active learning approach that made students work harder for their results. The former group self-reported that they learned more but the latter group in fact learned more based on a comparison of test scores between the two groups. One consequence of the study, the authors say, is that relying on student self-reporting about how much they learn can actually promote inferior classroom pedagogy insofar as students prefer an easy, passive approach over an active one which makes them work harder. The following is an excerpt from the IHE story in which the study's authors add their insights about the implications of their findings:
A study says smooth-talking professors can lull students into thinking they've learned more than they actually have -- potentially at the expense of active learning.
Students who engage in active learning learn more -- but feel like they learn less -- than peers in more lecture-oriented classrooms. That's in part because active learning is harder than more passive learning, according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Based on their findings, the researchers encourage faculty members to intervene and correct what they call students' "misperception" about how they learn.
"The article does not suggest that students don't like active learning," said lead author Louis Deslauriers, director of science teaching and learning at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and senior preceptor in physics. "In fact the data in the article shows students liked active learning and they felt they learned from it. But it just happened that students felt more positive about a highly-polished version of the same lecture."
Deslauriers's article is called "Measuring Actual Learning Versus Feeling of Learning in Response to Being Actively Engaged in the Classroom." But he said if he'd had his druthers, it might have been called, "The Dangers of Fluent Lectures."
The study, involving Harvard University undergraduates in large, introductory physics classes, compared students' self reports about what they'd learned with what they'd actually learned, as determined by a multiple choice tests. Students were taught using exactly the same course materials -- a key control that many other studies comparing active versus passive learning have failed to establish. But one group learned via active instruction methods for a week at the end of the semester and the other learned via lectures from experienced and well-regarded instructors.
A "crucial difference" between the two groups, according to the study, was whether students "were told directly how to solve each problem or were first asked to try to solve the problems themselves in small groups."
At the end of the course, students were given both "feeling of learning" and "tests of learning" assessments (the latter consisted of two, low-stakes quizzes with 12 multiple choice questions each). All of the "feeling" responses showed a consistent student preference for the passive lecture environment while scores on the learning tests -- on statics and fluids -- were significantly higher in the active classroom.
. . . .
The findings suggest that "attempts to evaluate instruction based on students' perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods," the study says. A "superstar" lecturer could make some students feel good about learning at the expense of demonstrably more effective active experiences. But most importantly, the study says, "these results suggest that when students experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort to signify poorer learning." And that may have a negative effect on their "motivation, engagement, and ability to self-regulate their own learning."
Although students can, on their own, "discover the increased value of being actively engaged during a semester-long course," the researchers argue, "their learning may be impaired during the initial part of the course."
Students' Attitudes and Expectations
The paper also provides important insight into why active learning hasn't taken deeper root in academe, despite the many studies that have previously identified its effectiveness as compared to more passive approaches (namely the lecture). In a word: students. That is, while professors are often seen as the biggest impediments to innovative teaching, the study describes an "inherent student bias against active learning that can limit its effectiveness and may hinder the wide adoption of these methods."
Compared with students in traditional lectures, students in active classes perceived that they learned less, while in reality they learned more. Students also rated the quality of instruction in passive lectures more highly, and expressed a preference to have "all of their physics classes taught this way," despite their lower test scores.
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Continue reading the IHE article here.
I'll just add that in an article I wrote here, I made the observation that many law professors feel great pressure (due to the reliance by administrators on student evals and the prevailing student-as-consumer culture at most schools) to come up with innovative classroom methods, often involving technology, that they hope will make the material easier, simpler, clearer, and more enjoyable for students. In actuality, however, the kind of learning we do in law school takes a great deal of effort and is very difficult because the brain was never designed to be good at it (as one expert I cite in my article says, the brain is not designed for deep thinking but, rather, to save us from having to do that kind of thinking at all). By choosing classroom methods or technologies that oversimplify the material or under sell the amount of effort students must put forth to learn, we are guilty of undermining their intellectual readiness to practice law.