Herzfeld Group

Management of Active Learning

Some students are enthusiastic about active learning and some feel that they are being cheated out of lectures. In the experience at Brandeis, about 1/3 of general chemistry students polled at the end of the year say that they would have preferred to have lectures, about 1/3 say that they prefer the active learning (some commenting specifically that it took a while for them to see its value) and the other 1/3 say that they don't have a preference between the two. If a department has the wherewithal to offer a choice, it might want to. However, it is often the students who most need the active learning, including the inducement to read the book and to engage with the concepts, who would avoid it if given a choice.

When active learning is going to be used in a science classroom (where it is less familiar than outside the sciences), one has to be prepared to make the case to students who think that they know how science should be taught. Unfortunately, reference to the pedagogical literature does not help because students at this level don't understand the research process behind it. What seems to settle the issue for students is to make the case that it is unfair to those students who have read the book to use class time to repeat that presentation. Fairness is a concept that young people seem to accept.

A different approach to fairness that is sometimes suggested is to spend half the time lecturing and half the time in active learning. However, with less than the conventional time to lecture, the only way to know what to lecture on is to see what students have trouble with. Mini-lectures often occur in clarifying the issues around a ConcepTest, but students often don't notice that a fair amount of lecturing is going on in the active learning setting because that lecturing is so highly targeted.

Students often wonder how to take notes with ConcepTests. Since it is important that they not spend thinking time frantically copying the question, they should simply record the number of the question (so that they can look at it again later on the web). Then they should write down all the answers that they initially thought were plausible, followed by the arguments that were involved in narrowing that set down to the correct answer.

Often students are more focused on getting the right answer than on the process (even arguing in some cases that "I don't know" should be offered as an option). It is important that they understand that even if they can eliminate only one answer, they already know something and it is OK to choose randomly among the answers that they can't eliminate. This lets the professor know the range of answers that students still need to process.

It is also important that students appreciate that active learning is a win-win process, rather than a zero sum game. The strong students learn by articulating their understanding to others (just as professors develop a much better grasp of a subject through teaching it). What the weaker students gain is an additional explanation from someone who is closer to the puzzlement than is the professor or the author of the textbook. It is often difficult for those of us who are more deeply steeped in the material to imagine what could be confusing about it.

Of course, active learning works best if the students have done the reading assignment before coming to class. Given the busy nature of our students' lives, it is helpful to provide inducements to do the reading faithfully. A good way to do this is to assign a few points for a reading quiz at the start of each week. This can be done in class, but it is more convenient to do it on the web the night before.

In large classes it can sometimes be challenging for the professor to get the students' attention back at the end of a group discussion. (Ironically, the worst offenders are often the ones who wish the professor would do more lecturing.) We all have our own strategies for quieting the room at the start of a lecture and this is the skill that is required several times per hour in active learning. It's important that students understand when it is the professor's turn to speak. Consideration can be framed as an issue of fairness to other member of the class. The challenge in large classes is due to the students' perception of anonymity, more than the sheer numbers, and breaking that anonymity by a direct remark to those who are speaking out of turn can upset students. A bell or gong or buzzer can be useful as a playful way to signal the end of open discussion.

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