Observations on “active learning”

After teaching about half a semester at a truly discussion-centric school, it’s already clear to me that most schools don’t know what they want out of discussion. For a lot of academics, it seems like they feel they must include some discussion element because discussion is supposed to be good — but they really have no idea why and don’t take discussion very seriously. The students themselves can be part of the problem, too, as they often feel that they are somehow being ripped off by being forced to listen to their ignorant peers when there’s a font of information standing right there. Finally, administrators are to blame by packing what should be discussion-heavy courses with huge numbers of students, making effective discussion extremely difficult.

So you wind up with instructors either lecturing, feeling guilty about it, and making some half-assed effort at periodic discussion; or else with instructors suffering through discussion when they wish they could just be lecturing. (In these cases, I think the students would probably be better served if the instructors could wholeheartedly go with the method they feel most comfortable with. If you don’t really believe in discussion, don’t waste people’s time trying to do it!)

What does it look like when an institution is really focused on active learning from the bottom up? First, the class sizes are small, without exception. At Shimer, the cap is twelve.

Second, the discussion is based on working through primary texts that basically everyone agrees to be very important. There might be ways to do heavily discussion-based education that’s not on the “Great Books” model, but I don’t see how you can do it (at least in the humanities and probably largely in the social sciences) other than by wrestling with primary texts.

To understand why, it’s important to note that both textbooks and lectures share a common flaw: they’re too predigested. Any “discussion” is likely to be just “asking questions” to help clarify around the edges. Students really do get the feeling of understanding from such things — as witnessed by the fact that they express greater satisfaction in their evaluations when professors lecture more — but it doesn’t stick with them because they didn’t have to work for it.

Working laboriously through a text has more durable results, based simply on the Nietzschean principle that suffering produces memory. Working through a text with your peers is also an important element, because you can immediately see that you’re not the only one who’s confused. Finally, working through a primary text that has generated a whole tradition of conflicting interpretations reassures everyone that the discussion is about something important — it’s not about what a bunch of teenagers think justice is, for example, but about what Plato thinks it is. (Nothing has discredited in-class discussion more thoroughly than pointless “what do you think?” crap.) This also helps to get past one of the most frequent pathologies of college students, namely, thinking that agreement or disagreement is the most important response to a text — probably no one is going to agree entirely with Plato, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not worthwhile to know what he thinks.

Having a professor who can steer you in the right direction, keep you from wasting time in blind alleys, and answer incidental factual questions then becomes a kind of backstop to the conversation, freeing you from anxiety about wasting time listening to your dumb peers — and as I’m increasingly learning, a big part of the professor’s role is to help smooth over personal conflicts between students to keep them from getting in the way of learning as well.

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for education, but I think it should be the ideal for a liberal arts college education. It’s a simple ideal: reading good books and talking about them with smart people. It doesn’t cost a lot of money — all you need is a table, some books (which will usually be available in cheap editions), and maybe a chalk board. Yet it still seems like an impossible fantasy for something like this to become the norm in liberal arts colleges, and that makes me sad.

12 thoughts on “Observations on “active learning”

  1. Sounds like we have the same approach and experience of teaching. I do feel guilty about lecturing so much, and I tell myself that I aim for them to know and understand the material. I hope that subsequent reflection provides the opportunities to do something with it, but that can only be a hope in large intro courses.

  2. Solid observations. The satisfaction of lecture courses rather than “peer-taught” models seems in my experience to come from the fact that peer-teaching only helps the students doing the instruction for the day. I’ve only seen peer-teaching work well in the primary-text classroom, when it’s the assignment of slightly greater responsibility in peer discussion for that day. Otherwise, it does feel like a rip-off — “I paid good money for knowledge I’m not getting!” Unless, of course, I’m self-motivated and an independent learner, in which case I’m ignoring my peers and charging ahead idiosyncratically. A good seminar model solves both problems — everyone is pulling the same load in the common yoke.

  3. I have two courses this semester (way better than the three I had last fall). One is a “first year seminar” with 30 students and the other is a third year lecture course with 60 students. Given that this is a so-called “comprehensive university” in Canada, we aren’t dealing with students of the same caliber as at Shimer and, as a general rule, the first year students are better than the third year students because they are, at least, malleable and haven’t had three years of useless pedagogy making them completely and absolutely resistant to anything that does not come off of a power point slide.

    For the past couple years, I’ve been working hard to my “FYSM” far more discussion centric. When I first taught the course, I treated it as a small lecture. I’d talk, they’d listen, and because the class was smaller, they’d have a greater opportunity to ask questions, make comments, and so on without feeling like they are talking in front of a room full of strangers. This went well enough, but I wasn’t happy. But, given an institutional environment where fourth year seminars have 30-40 students and graduate seminars have 10-15 students, making a course discussion-centric is quite a challenge. My first attempt was basically a complete failure. In part because I didn’t have that useful personality in the class: the student that abhors silence and will say anything to fill up dead air. This sort of student rarely adds anything of value to the discussion except initiating the discussion. The next year went somewhat better, in part, I think, because I completely banned electronic devices from the room under the penalty of having chalk thrown at or around you. This year, my third time attempting it, my first year class is just working. I don’t know if it is because of the students–none of them are exceptionally bright students, but they are all good–or if it is because of something I am doing–more confident in letting them lead the class–or what. But it is working this year. We’ve had three teaching sessions so far and I haven’t had to lecture or talk at length in any of them. They might meander around the points somewhat and they are prone to digressions, especially when we did Mauss’s “The Gift” (one student had even been to a potlatch, but nothing was smashed, unfortunately), but after working through the texts and concepts, they usually come to a reasonably good understanding after three hours.

    My FYSM is part of a program called “ArtsOne,” the idea of which is to (1) have a common curriculum and (2) replicate the “liberal arts experience.” Given that the seminars have 30 students, the extent to which the “liberal arts experience” is replicated is quite questionable. The way we’ve done our “cluster” (name: “Criminal Matters,” no idea who chose it years and years ago; theme: crime, power, violence, etc) is that monthly the three FYSMs in the cluster have a “common session” which will be lead by one of the seminar leaders: so, ninety students in the room, three instructors, etc. I lead the first session and it was the first time I lectured to the first year students this year.

    Qua lecture, it wasn’t bad. Certainly not my best and certainly not my worst. Part of the problem is that I did not know what level the students from the other seminars were at. I know that they don’t have any “theoretical” work in their seminars whereas mine is almost all theoretical/philosophical. My students thought it was the most boring class yet because they didn’t get to speak. The other sixty students dutifully copied down everything I said between text messages. (In part they are blameless in this: one of the other instructors spent their time text messaging too.) I also noticed that all thirty of my students knew each other by name and the thirty of them sat together talking, joking, and so on. The other sixty students didn’t seem to know each other and were rather quiet. Given the institutional constraints, I think I’m doing about as well as anyone could do with “active learning,” “discussion-centric,” and so on.

    My third years have been completely different. Part of the problem is that our class has a terrible time: 2:30-5:30 on Friday. I didn’t even know that they scheduled classes then! Again, I’ve done my best to lecture as little as possible and let them talk as much as possible. One student, complained about the discussion in an email: “I have found class discussion utterly useless.” The student then dropped the course. Given that only about half of the students have spoken in class thus far, I’m inclined to believe that she isn’t the only one who feels this way. Now, there are obvious structural problems to having a sixty student class be centred around discussion. For one, the arrangement of chairs and desks is designed for rote copying from powerpoint. Second, if you are at the front, you can’t see someone at the back speaking; if you are at the back, you can only see the back’s of people’s heads at the front. Third, given the size of the room, I often have to repeat the comment, question, observation, so everyone can hear it. I can’t figure out why, given the courses they’ve most likely taken so far, they are so resistant to discussion and, to a lesser extent, why they are so resistant to the material: Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” is a great essay and it is highly discussable given its “open” structure. And all they want is for me to give them the facts. I don’t want to admit defeat: that I have to lecture, that I have to convey the argument, the concepts, and, most importantly for them, how to “apply” the concept or argument.

  4. Matt, Sorry I misunderstood. I agree that probably the most student leadership you can do is giving students a little more responsibility for discussion, at least in an undergrad course.

    Craig, It really sounds like you’re in an impossible situation, but I’m glad you’re getting some good results. Even at a small liberal arts college like Kalamazoo, many of my classes tended to be too large, though I never had 60.

  5. I don’t know that “great books” are necessary, though primary texts probably are. A discussion-based approach to, say, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (ok, widely agreed within the field to be very important, but not likely to wind up on any list of “great books”) would work; here too you can ask “what does Sellars think about x; what’s his argument here; how’s this supposed to work anyway; who’s in his sights” (last question admittedly difficult without background knowledge).

    Small classes, though, definitely.

  6. This is really good. Thank you. I wish it could be published in the Chronicle so I could point administrators to it.

  7. Great books – not the branded official organization – can be quite flexible, and even the branded official organization is a lot more heterodox than it used to be. You could just as easily call it primary texts or primary sources.

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