Critical ThinkingEducationHigher EducationPedagogy

Active learning as get-out-of-teaching?

A recent article in the Chronicle highlighted the growing shift toward student- or learner-centered teaching in higher education.  The idea is that rather than a professor lecture to a passive audience who soak up the wisdom of the sage on the stage, the class is structured around activities and discussion where the students learn through doing some sort of exercise to discover the information as a process.  The professor becomes the guide on the side.  This method has solid evidence supporting its effectiveness and many are embracing it in their classrooms.  The Chronicle article highlighted how more professors and students report its use, which can be seen as a positive trend.

Then I read the comments.  And I realized these commenters must never have used student-centered approaches.

First there was the idea that this is a ploy to satisfy the “student as customer” model:

In turn, this means that professors become service providers, there merely to facilitate ‘learning’ and the acquisition of ‘competencies,’ and therefore thoroughly fungible.

This destroys the model of the professor as expert relating his or her research.

My first thought was how is this actually different from lecturing?  The lecture is supposed to covey the same information as a student-centered approach – that hasn’t changed.  My second thought was this commenter thinks students LIKE student-centered activities.  Trust me, they don’t.  At least not at first.  They WANT to be lectured at, because then all they have to do is sit there.  When they do an activity they have to actually WORK.

Then there was the idea that student-centered learning is easier for the professor:

As beneficial and evidentiary-based as this article is – and I’ll concede that there are a lot of legitimate points behind this philosophy – the most pernicious consequence might be the further de-skilling and de-professionalizing of what teacher-scholars actually do in the classroom.

This comes from a person who probably has never constructed or facilitated a student-centered activity.  They aren’t easy to make to ensure the learning objectives are accomplished, to make sure the students stay within the bounds of the intended material, that they are written to enable the students to discover the idea and not confuse the heck out of them.  And students have the uncanny ability to find the weaknesses in the activities – the facilitator has to be able to handle that, which means leading the students back off any weird tangents they managed to find.  Additionally the facilitator has to be able to manage however many groups working at different paces asking different questions, while at the same time keeping the class as a whole on track.  I work far harder in my active learning classes than my lecture classes.

Then there was the running thread about how this was a ploy by administrators to get more for less:

All of these “improvements” have shared a common goal – the elimination on expensive experts and their replacement with whatever cost-saving technology is fashionable in the moment. If these “new” methods are so successful, why are there no statistics being offered that show actual student improvement rather than changes in professors’ behaviors?

The evidence for efficacy is widely available (primary source for Wired article above, a meta-analysis focusing on STEM disciplines).  That being said, there is always effort put into teaching innovation, technology, and in cost savings.  Whether the administration is actually running a conspiracy is a question for another time.

Then there was this comment:

I completely support this vision.

And here is how we implement it.

Step 1: Offshore all administration to another organization or country (say, India):

Step 2: Fire all remaining administrators and replace them with computers. I hear that this new technology of MOOA is great (Massively, Open, Online Administration).

Step 3: Students are requird to be on-time, not-asleep, no use of cell phones in classrooms, prepare by reading the night before, stand up when a professor enters the room.

Call the new approach ILCIL: Instruction learning centered instruction and learning.

I’m not even sure what this is about, but the whole standing when professor enters the room thing is interesting…

My teaching philosophy is I set up a classroom in the way I think will be most effective for conveying the material at hand.  I have more and more active learning in most of my classes, though there is still lecturing in one form or another in them as well.  The students are made aware of how the class is structured and they can cooperate to the degree they desire, such as in the last utopian comment, like being awake, prepared, and (presumably) respectful.  However, if a student chooses to not fit in with Utopia, so long as they aren’t disruptive, that’s not my problem – it’s theirs.

I use student-centered approaches because they work; I have ample data from my own classes as well as the article cited above to back that up.  My students tend to be cooperative and do what is asked of them, because most of them realize they are responsible for their learning – something student-centered learning really brings home.  I am happy to see this trend in higher education and hope it continues.


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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.

1 Comment

  1. November 18, 2014 at 10:35 am —

    Fascinating, because as I try to incorporate active learning into a course I will teach this spring, I’m finding that it requires twice as much effort. I have to put together the materials they need to review prior to the class session as well as the active learning exercises during class time.

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