Justin Li

Teaching Active Learning


It’s been a little while since I’ve talked about teaching. Although I only taught for one more semester after that last post, I got involved with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) to train new non-faculty instructors and help them get feedback. One of the main things I’m supposed to do is to encourage student instructors to use active learning.

The main idea behind active learning is to minimize the time that students spend sitting and listening to a lecture. Research has shown that a student can only pay attention for about 15 minutes in lecture (pdf), after which retention goes from 70% to 20%. Instead of having students merely passively taking in material, active learning would require the student to participate in some way. Some more common ways of using active learning in the classroom include project-based work, case studies, group discussions, iClickers, and so on. These teaching methods are not meant to complete replace the lecture, but to supplement the lecture by forcing students to process the material. Use correctly, active learning does help students achieve the goals of a class.

My first problem with active learning is already present, which is that the term “active learning” is too broadly defined. If we go by the above definition, then something as simple as inviting student questions would be considered active learning. While allowing students to ask questions is a good thing – and while you’ll be surprised how often students don’t feel comfortable asking questions – setting the bar this low means that the majority of teachers are already practicing active learning. If this is the definition of active learning that is being sold, there is no incentive for new teachers to try the more involved and more effective methods. It’s the equivalent of calling driving a sport, which would let everyone who lives in the suburbs to say they do sports and live an “active lifestyle”. Then they congratulate themselves on being active, then never play anything that involves exercise.

The problem is that there is no good, short definition of active learning that precisely captures the idea. Confirmation bias is at fault here. Given the descriptions “making students think” and “more than passively listening”, people who understand active learning think it fits the concept well, failing to realize that if they didn’t know what active learning was, it fits a whole lot more things too. Unfortunately, no one can be told what ~~the Matrix~~ active learning is; they simply have to be presented with example after example, slowly letting their brain learn the fuzzy concept.

Wherein lies my second problem with active learning: we don't spend close to enough time training instructors for them to learn this distinction. At Michigan, a new instructor is required to go through a “full day” of training, which in reality only goes from 9am to 4pm. Not counting lunches, breaks, welcoming speeches, and other non-teaching material (such as policies for the Graduate Employee Organization) leaves maybe five hours of teaching orientation. The first hour is about classroom climate – discrimination, student-instructor dynamics, and so on. The next two hours contains concurrent sessions on different types of instructional duties, such as discussions, labs, office hours, etc. The last two hours is for practice teaching, but since the new instructors are in groups, the actual teaching is limited to five minutes. If you’re lucky, active learning will be brought up, defined, and (briefly) discussed in the concurrent sessions, and maybe again during practice teaching; if you’re not lucky, the term will be thrown around, leaving you none the wiser.

To be fair, Michigan does require new instructors to go through “ongoing professional development”. One of the possibilities here is advanced practice teaching, where the instructor is required to use an active learning technique, selected from a handout. In reality, very few instructors actually do so, partially because the idea of active learning is still abstract, partially because instructors only have ten minutes (a 100% increase!), and partially because the other instructors role-playing as students have no incentive to participate. Often, the most “active” the students ever get is to spend two minutes trying to guess what the instructor wants from them.

I want to make clear that I understand the difficulty of getting this right. There is only so much time both new instructors and the university is willing to spend in training, and having that bit of training is better than not having that training at all. Instructors do have another alternative: to get a Midterm Student Feedback (MSF), which is actually the main component of my job. In an MSF, a third-party facilitator observes a class session of the instructor’s. Then, taking 15-20 minutes of class, the instructor leaves the classroom to allow the facilitator to talk to the students, to see what the students like about the instructor, and what the instructor can change to help the students. As a result, the suggestions are personalized to the instructor, and missed opportunities for active learning will be pointed out. Research suggests that MSFs do have a net positive effect (pdf) on student evaluations of instructors.

Having sat through 15 student-taught discussions, labs, office hours, and so on, I think there is a third problem with active learning which, in my opinion, is the most serious one. Even if active learning is better defined, even if new instructors have enough training to understand what active learning is, they may still be using active learning incorrectly. Good active learning is not simply, say, getting students to talk to each other; the content of what they talk about also matters. Take the example of an algebra class, and consider the following concept question for the iClicker:

How many times does the polynomial y = -2⁢x3 + x2 - 1 touch th x-axis?

  • It doesn’t touch the x-axis.
  • It touches the x-axis once.
  • It touches the x-axis twice.
  • It touches the x-axis three times.
  • It touches the x-axis four times.

This is not an unreasonable question to appear in an algebra lecture, but it’s not an effective one to gauge how students are doing. For one, the question is overly dependent on error-prone algebraic manipulation, so even the students who know how to get the answer could get it wrong. As an iClicker question, it would also take students took long to calculate the answer. Finally, because the problem is specific, it doesn’t test the students’ general mastery of polynomials. (The answer, by the way, is that it touches the x-axis once.)

Now consider this question instead:

If a polynomial touches the x-axis twice, what must be true about its degree?

  • It must have a degree of one.
  • It must have a degree of two.
  • It must have an even degree.
  • It must have a degree of two or more.

This question requires the students to understand and reason about the relationship between the algebraic representation of the polynomial (ie. its degree) with the graphical representation (ie. its roots). If students disagree, it’s also likely to generate discussion, where individual students can try and come up with counter examples. Finally, the answers will tell the instructor how the students are distributed in terms of their understanding, and allow the instructor to adjust the class content as necessary. (The answer, by the way, is that it must have a degree of two or more, since it needs at least two to have two real roots, and any higher degrees can have non-real roots, and therefore would not cause the curve to touch the x-axis.)

The bigger lesson here is that effectively using active learning is more than just the structuring of the class. It also requires the instructor to read the mood of the students, to have a feel for how students will react to certain activities, and to understand where students may have trouble. This is pedagogical content knowledge – not just content knowledge (eg. algebra), not just pedagogical knowledge (eg. active learning), but pedagogy as applied the particular content of a class (eg. what active learning methods work for teaching algebra). Active learning cannot be divorced from the teaching goals of the instructor, the prior knowledge of the students; it needs to be planned for an as integral part of the class, not as an independently-designed silver bullet, to be inserted anywhere for instant perfect teaching. Without these considerations, active learning in the classroom will only ever bear a surface resemblance to good teaching.

Ultimately, I fear that the entire package of being a good instructor cannot be learned outside of extensive practice, with a good dose of innate talent to boot. I don’t know how to force people to reflect on their teaching enough to reach this point. I don’t think the training and services we do provide to instructors is a waste of time, since it’s better than nothing; but I am also skeptical that the training has any large effect on the teaching quality, even if the usage of active learning is increased.