Are We Preaching to the Choir about Student-Centered Learning Practices?

I’d like to report on a nonscientific study I have been conducting, without human-subjects approval or even a clear research plan. This won’t make it into the research journals, but the results are still compelling.

My “study” has been continuous for over two years. During that time, I have made numerous trips, at random times, from my administrative office to a building on the opposite corner of campus. For nearly three months, I made the round trip twice a day or more. Every time, I have walked through the ground floor of our main general classroom building, which has about 14 classrooms, mostly 30- to 50-person rooms, but also with one 120-person tiered lecture hall. The classrooms are assigned to courses covering a wide range of disciplines, mostly first- or second-year classes.

Every trip down the corridor, I have observed the classes in session. Each door has a window, and peeking in as I’ve passed by, I’ve made a judgment whether or not students appear to be engaged with each other: talking to each other or doing some sort of group activity. My nonscientific method has been a simple count and mental note as I left the building: in what fraction of classes (e.g., 3/10, 2/14, 0/11) were students engaged with other students. I haven’t recorded data; I haven’t correlated them with the type or level of the class or entered them into a spreadsheet.

But the compelling result after hundreds of observations is that only about 10 to 15 percent of the time have I seen students engaged with each other. Mostly, they are staring straight ahead, sleeping, or texting. Even in classrooms where the instructor has the chairs in a circle, the students are usually looking toward the head of the circle where the professor is talking. I include test-taking, watching movies, and the like as “not engaged,” so there likely would be more discrimination in the results than my simple observations suggest.

But the range of the “data” is very narrow, from zero to maybe 20 percent. As an engineer, I am pained not to have means, standard deviations, and correlation coefficients to report—no graphs or charts either! But I know enough probability and statistics to know in my gut that the data are valid. The observations are so consistent the conclusion is inescapable: very little active learning goes on in the classrooms at my institution, or at least in the classes taking place on the first floor of this particular building.

I have shared my observations with colleagues here and at other institutions, and no one seems to be surprised. We all talk about how teaching and learning are changing at our institutions. We go to regional and national meetings, coming back energized to further refine our teaching practice and implement what we have learned. We write articles and engage actively in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Yet, when it comes down to it, we are in the choir and the choir isn’t all that big.

I know I am striking a pessimistic tone. However, I do not conclude that the effective teaching movement in higher education has been futile. But I do want to share my observations and to use them as a call to action for those of us in the choir. Let’s reach out and consciously try to make the choir a chorus. Let’s make it a flash mob. Let’s make our enthusiasm go viral among our colleagues.

Let’s not keep walking down this corridor of complacency. When we hear a colleague pooh-pooh student-centered learning, let’s share one of those great articles we just read. Let’s bring up teaching and learning in our faculty meetings. When we take part in a program at our teaching and learning center, let’s extend a personal invitation to a colleague who hasn’t attended one yet. I believe we can do this, and I believe we owe it to our students.

Thanks for listening.

Dr. Howard Shapiro recently retired as Associate Vice President for Student Services and Undergraduate Affairs at Wayne State University.

Excerpted from Are We Preaching to the Choir about Student-Centered Learning Practices? The Teaching Professor, 25.7(2011): 3.