June 24th, 2016

Lecture vs. Active Learning: Reframing the Conversation

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Exchanges about the relative merits of lecture and active learning continue, and these exchanges are becoming more acrimonious and polarized. Either you are for lecturing (and against active learning) or you’re for active learning (and against lecturing). Active learning advocates have the evidence; those who lecture stand on tradition. Where is this debate headed? How accurately does it reflect what’s actually happening in classrooms? Is there a viable place in the middle?

During the morning plenary session at the 13th annual Teaching Professor Conference, a faculty panel shared perspectives on this pedagogical debate and explored ways the conversation might be reframed so that it moves forward in a productive manner. With the help of conference attendees, they also explored the question that never gets discussed, how do you know when you should use one or the other?

The session, “Lecture vs. Active Learning: Reframing the Conversation,” featured Maryellen Weimer, editor of The Teaching Professor; Neil Haave, associate professor, University of Alberta; and Carl Lovitt, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Central Connecticut State University. Conference Chair Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, served as the facilitator.

To provide some framework for the conversation, Paff shared stats from a variety of studies that highlight the continued prevalence of lecture. These studies (available in this handout and discussed in greater detail in the March 2016 issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter) demonstrate how lecture is often the default mode of teaching in many disciplines.

  • 275 economics faculty teaching principles courses reported spending 70% of the time lecturing and 20% leading class discussions.
  • Of 2,000 geoscience faculty, 66% reported using lecture in introductory courses nearly every class. Less than a third used interactive techniques other than lecture.
  • 197 engineering department heads were asked about active-learning pedagogies; 82% were aware of the pedagogies listed, 47% reported that faculty in the department had adopted them.

But as one attendee noted during a group exercise designed to explore definitions of lecture and active learning, not everyone defines lecture and active learning the same way.

“My ‘lecture’ is actually a series of short lectures broken up by different activities I’ve designed to get students thinking, talking, and doing,” she said. “So yes, I’m lecturing. But that doesn’t mean I’m talking throughout the entire class.”

For many, the challenge is finding the right balance. “A teacher’s expertise is not just about the content,” said Weimer. “We also need expertise in knowing when to intervene and what to do when we intervene. We need to be thinking more about the role of teacher expertise in the active learning classroom.”

“Faculty have to be more mindful of what exactly they want students to learn,” said Lovitt. “Active learning comes from active teaching … just as passive learning comes from passive teaching.”

“Faculty need to be not only content experts but also experts in pedagogy” suggested Haave. “As instructors we must be able to navigate which instructional strategies will best meet the learning needs of the students in that moment in time. This may require an explanation from the teacher or an activity that engages the students – it depends on students’ learning needs in the moment.”

The interactive session also included a brief teaching scenario that asked attendees to talk with those at their table and determine a course of action. The scenario involved a group computer lab assignment that starts to go awry when two of the top students propose a solution that’s not nearly as good as what some of the other groups suggest. What’s more, these two students are quite forceful in their efforts to persuade the others that they’re going about it all wrong. You sense the other students are becoming frustrated and confused. What should you do?

Attendees were presented with the following three possible options, or they could create their own.

  1. Do nothing. Let the discussion proceed. If most of the students pick the wrong answer, it will be a learning experience for everyone.
  2. Offer up several questions and tell students that answering those questions will help them decide on the best solution. Or, put up page numbers in the text that contain relevant information.
  3. Stop the discussion and provide a short (5-10 minute) presentation that reiterates principles of programming relevant to this problem. Then let the discussion resume.

Table discussions and the subsequent tweets stressed the importance of resisting the urge (and pleas from students) to step in and provide the answer. Failure is part of learning, and it’s better to give students the tools to solve the problem than to solve the problem for them.

“Students are dreadfully afraid of making mistakes,” said Weimer. “They don’t see mistakes as opportunities for learning, and sometimes teachers are also afraid of mistakes. We try something new, it doesn’t work perfectly and we don’t do it again.”

Paff wrapped up the session by encouraging attendees to continue the conversation when they return home to their campuses and shared a quote designed to shift the focus away from instructional decisions and toward students’ needs and learning.

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”
– Herbert A. Simon

Save the Date: Planning for the 2017 Teaching Professor Conference has begun! For our 14th annual conference, we head to St. Louis, June 2-4, 2017.