August 4th, 2016

What You Are Teaching? What Are They Learning?


students in a lecture hall

Consider the lessons we learn without being fully aware they are taking place. Take something simple, such as walking into a new building for the first time. With everyone and everything you observe, your mind is giving you feedback based on a multitude of judgments. These impressions, while sometimes incorrect, come to us with little effort. Yet they could loosely be considered teaching and learning without calling it either. I have found this to be a fruitful concept from a pedagogical standpoint. How many of us actively question this point to ourselves, “What am I teaching students, and what are they learning?”

Student engagement and active learning can lead to increased understanding and retention of the content. How educators promote interaction with and among their students and the content varies, but regardless of the methodologies—class discussions, group projects, or others—the challenge is in addressing how much time educators allocate for students to engage fully in their learning.

One could suggest that we should question the correlation of two aspects in our classes on a daily basis. The first question is, how efficient do we expect our students to be in collaborating, active listening, and making their own inferences? The next question is, what amount of time do we use for lecturing alone, essentially teaching students to do none of those skills necessary for enhanced learning?

The trend toward student-centered learning continues to improve. According to a 2014 report from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, lecturing on a large scale has continued to drop since 1989 when the institute began recording its use among full-time faculty at four-year colleges. However, the 2013-2014 research cites a decrease only to 50.6 percent of the faculty surveyed nationwide, meaning a slight majority still rely on lecture to a significant degree. The data show improvement, but not necessarily at as fast of pace as one might assume. Although there is a place for lecture in college classrooms both large and small, most would argue it is not as effective as facilitation, where the instructor guides the conversation and infuses necessary knowledge when and where necessary to spur dialogue among students. While we are aware that we are teaching content through lecture, we may be unaware that we are also teaching students to forgo desired skills, such as critical thinking, speaking, and arriving at conclusions. (Eagan, et al. 2014)

Many educators, myself included at times, feel as though they cannot cover enough content without integrating lecture at least proportionately with class discussions or similar activities. It is a valid concern. That being said, if research proves effective those pedagogical and andragogical strategies that call for student interaction among peers, do we forgo quality for quantity all in the name of “coverage”? The goal should be to achieve both, and through adapting curriculum as well as assessments it is truly an attainable goal.

In my history courses, the relevance of the material to my students’ lives is, in most cases, sufficient in generating student discussion. I could be simply lucky in that, and no doubt every discipline has advantages and disadvantages in terms of finding the right balance of active learning and lecture.

Nevertheless, if you’ve ever wondered why students struggle with group work or other activities that ask them to do more than sit passively while we talk, the reason may be very simple. We do well at what we practice. As educators, we should challenge ourselves to break down into percentages, what degree of emphasis and time is realistically allocated to the skills at which we wish our students to become proficient. Are we teaching our students how to be active learners when we have classes with limited collaboration or student input? If we forego opportunities for student-centered learning, then perhaps we are unwittingly proliferating confusion and minimized confidence when our students are asked to practice critical thinking in a context outside of the classroom. Aside from content, let us take note of what we are teaching our students, even when we don’t realize we are indeed teaching them.

Dale Schlundt is a faculty member at Palo Alto College.

Reference: Eagan, M.K., Stolzenburg, E.B., Berdan Lozaon, J., Aragon, M.C., Surchard, M.R., and Hurtado, S. (2014). Undergraduate Teaching Faculty, 2013-2014 HERI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

  • Andrea Leatherdale

    Thank you for a very relevant and timely article at a critical point in education, where collaboration has been identified as a core skill of the 21st Century Learner. Yet the volume of content that is expected to be delivered in larger and larger class sizes, with greater diversity, challenges our profession to incorporate collaborative learning within meaningful contexts. For practical purposes, students who engage in collaboration will enhance their problem-solving and decision making for real-world application. Incorporating a problem-solving approach into curriculum delivery (Allen & Graden,2002), as a process for collaborative practices ,using an authentic problem relevant to your course topic, could be an effective teaching strategy. This approach could balance active learning with critical thinking while covering required content. (

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