What is passive learning? (and how to avoid it)

On January 4th, 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an opinion piece written by 15 undergraduates, all of them writing-seminar students at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The next day, The Chronicle’s republished this piece,  A Lecture from the Lectured,  with the catchy hook: “We’re tired of sitting silently in the dark, listening to you read the PowerPoint.”

Well, that’s that then.

To be fair, the students’ writing was  well-considered and more reflective than dismissive. Their university has an enrollment of in excess of 44,000 students; they understand that large lectures are necessary.

Lecture courses with enrollments of 800 to 900 students are common at Urbana-Champaign. Some of those lectures are boring. Some students have to squeeze assignments into an already busy schedule that includes work, commute times, extracurricular activities, friends, family, and hopefully, sleep. Some students may be surfing the internet and posting on Facebook during lecture time. Some students are tired, stressed and over-committed.

But, occasionally, say these 15 students, things are different:

We don’t all agree that the lecture is doomed. A number of us have found professors who have really inspired us with their lectures. They convey their subject with energy, and engage us as people. One gathers students on stage to act out what he is teaching. Another, a climatologist, asks us to send him photos of the day’s weather. Professors who ask us questions, make jokes, bring in their dogs — do anything to humanize themselves — make us feel less like just a body in the room.

So, sometimes these very large lectures are INTERESTING. They make the students feel noticed, even among hundreds. They make the students feel more engaged in course materials. The students recognize good teaching when they see it. This kind of engagement is perhaps the simplest and first step towards active learning.

Active learning has become a buzzword for many things, and not all commentators agree on what those things are. For some, it’s a student-driven learning session. For others it’s about the expensive moveable furniture. There might be a technology aspect involved, for example, in screens in in on room so ideas can be compared. It might include online components. It often declares that something or another concerning education is “dead,” usually targeting”The Lecture,” as destructive, ineffectual, or otherwise on the waiting list for that pedagogical hospice where old idea go into hibernation (until someone thinks them up again).

Here’s the foundational definition of active learning, authored by one of its founders:

Active learning is a process where students engage in classroom activities that promote critical engagement with course materials. Activities may include text analysis, collaborative writing, various forms of discussion or problem solving. Although active learning transfers, in part, the responsibility of learning to the student, the course must also be designed to make student activities meaningful and goal-oriented.

In one definition, when done well, “active learning engages students in two aspects – doing things and thinking about the things they are doing (Bonwell, 1991).

The 15 students from Indiana were not just complaining about boring lectures; they were writing in explicit response to two recently published essays about the university lecture. One, “Lecture Me. Really.” (New York Times, October 15, 2015) by Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Worthen begins her essay by recounting an arduous, eventually successful, search for a wooden podium she wanted in her technology-rich classroom. It is an unapologetic plea for the centrality of the lecture in learning.

Worthen traces active learning to ideas expressed eloquently and repeated by educators since the 19th century. Charles William Eliot, for instance, thought most student’s minds were like ‘sieves,’ through which ‘much good water’ was poured: for Eliot, the fundamental work of higher education was to simply keep on pouring.

Worthen believes that the lecture is “essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship,” and, as such, is critical as the primary method for transmitting knowledge.

Students, today, in Worthen’s opinion, are problematic. Her argument that listening to a good lecture helps teach the art of critical thinking by internalizing and reflecting upon a well-delivered argument is somewhat undermined by the admission that other colleagues find it necessary to first teach students how to listen. Then teach them how to take notes effectively. The lecture, says Worthen, “keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize.” The crux of Worthen’s argument is in defense of humanistic studies. Student-centered learning, of which active learning is one facet, like many other educational technologies in the last two decades, was first adopted by STEM disciplines. That, in itself, to Worthen, is yet another death knell for funding humanities in the modern university.

She is pretty clear about what she thinks of active learning:

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

I’m not certain that many undergraduates learn how to think critically by listening to an experienced critical thinker speaking, any more than reading great academic writing teaches them to write that way. Both skills need a more direct mechanical transmission that should be part of college education, but in an explicit fashion, not by osmosis. Also, the assumption that student-led discussion in active learning is done in the absence of a “sage” in the room makes the difference between a great seminar meeting and a fabulous dining hall conversation.

A post on Slate rebuts Worthen’s essay, and the “Lectured” students reviewed it. The post is authored by Rebecca Schuman, a writer based in St. Louis. The title ” Professors shouldn’t only teach to younger versions of themselves,,” sums up her argument. Not all students have the skills (at least not yet) to take in much information in the 50- minute lecture — there is a mismatch between what the instructor thinks the students can assimilate (often based on assumptions of prior knowledge) and what each student might actually take away from the lecture. Critical thinking and argument-making rely upon a synthetic process that requires practice and experience. However, warns, Schumann, don’t assume that all students would prefer NOT to attend a lecture. The more a class approaches the application of “active learning,” the more it asks of students:

It’s actually often the seminar format that students don’t want, because it forces them to be present in the classroom. In 75 minutes loaded with the “learner-centered” activities that Worthen dismisses as callow consumerism, the class still works through that “long, complex argument,” but they do it together, with a measure of involvement, investment, and sometimes even retention (the kind not even the most meticulous notes can provide).

That sounds like a different kind of hard work.

Where do the delivery methods used in your class fall on the pyramid of knowledge?

Want to learn more? A short reading list might help.