A Compelling Case for Active Learning

On Twitter the other day, a tweet from @TheAtlanticEducation caught my eye: All students don’t learn the same.  For readers of this blog, it will come as no surprise that this was clickbait for me—learning styles are our bête noire, so any article that potentially engages with that conversation is a must-read.

In fact, the article wasn’t about learning styles at all. But still interesting and very relevant to any educator: The article, “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science”, summarizes a recent study, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work?” (open access) from biologists Kelly Hogan (UNC) and Sarah L. Eddy (Univ. of Washington) regarding how different pedagogies can affect students of diverse backgrounds differently. Hogan & Eddy’s study found that STEM courses structured around active learning produced improved outcomes for all students, regardless of their background, but produced a larger improvement in minority students. In fact, active learning pedagogies almost eliminated the gap in outcomes across demographic groups.

One excellent aspect of this study: Previous work has not been robust enough to draw conclusions about the transferability of methods across classrooms, instructors, and disciplines. The experimental design of Hogan & Eddy’s study indicates that active learning methodologies and a more structured course environment do, in fact, work across university contexts.

The preponderance of evidence, from this recent study and others (example), indicates that traditional lecture style classes no longer work, if they ever did. The literature on active learning raises the question: In an increasingly diverse educational landscape, is it even ethical to still teach mainly through lecture? If outcomes are so drastically improved across the board, are you even doing your job if you primarily lecture?

Though the Hogan & Eddy study looks at STEM classrooms, the broader literature indicates that active learning methods achieve similar results, regardless of the discipline. So what does that mean for librarians?

As we’ve discussed both on this blog and in presentations before, lecture-style “how to use a database” demonstrations need to go away…forever. Even if that’s the way we learned, that doesn’t a) mean it’s actually the most effective way to teach and b) take into account the varied backgrounds that students bring to the classroom. Active learning in the library classroom can take many forms, from asking students get their hands dirty in the databases and accomplish tasks to engaging in critical discussions about the creation of information. Yes, in almost every case, we don’t have time in a one-shot to get through everything we want to show students about library research, but if lecture-style teaching doesn’t result in solid, long-term outcomes, then wouldn’t it better be better to focus deeply on one or two critical IL skills that students can carry forward with them?

Active learning is, at its core, student-centered. No matter the good intentions behind it, lecture-style teaching is by nature much more about the lecturer. For educators with student-centered philosophies of teaching, it should come as no surprise that active learning pedagogies are critical to the future of education system with more equitable (and improved) learning outcomes.

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It’s better to do something simple that is real.

-Bill Evans

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The Importance of Hearing (Students’) Voices

I had an interesting conversation with the ol’ fiancee the other day about  pedagogy (what else) that got me thinking. She had mentioned something offhandedly about one of her (elementary school) students having made a joke about she and I after they’d met me briefly one afternoon. I said something like “Did that bother you? Did you think that was disprespectful?” Her response was interesting, something like, “Who cares if they respect me?” The ol gal had more or less dropped a zen riddle on me, because I know for a fact that her classroom management is impeccable, and that the kids do really respect her. Her point,  I think, was something like “Why do you think respect means they can never say anything personal or that I might not like? What the hell are you, your father?!”

We’ve talked before about how her “classroom management” style is about developing relationships with the students, ones where they feel valued as individuals. Research shows that this teacher-student “rapport” is a key element of whether students learn ( Fiancee putting it in terms even idiot fiance’s can understand: “People don’t learn from people they don’t like”).  Interestingly, a major part of not liking someone is when you don’t think they value you or your opinions. And students’ opinions aren’t always positive – for example, we rarely, as educators, think that “school sucks” is a valuable opinion, even though of course school sucks. Similarly, it’s maybe easy to think that “it’s stupid that we have to use microfilm for this assignment” is kind of an opinion not really worth taking seriously, until you think about the fact that as an 18 year old human being you’re probably right to think that having to use microfilm for this assignment is stupid. Instead of recognizing these moments as teachable ones through the vehicle of compassion and empathy, it’s often natural want to deny the legitimacy of our student’s authentic feelings and impose our own values as educators on them. I’m guilty of this too, although much less often, I hope, since I’ve become more and more aware of it (although as you can see from the conversation recounted at the outset, it’s easy to fall into knee-jerk, controlling habits, even when that’s not our conscious intention!). With all this in mind, here’s some nice quotes from the education literature about the importance of taking students’ perspectives into account:

Amplifying student voice is closely linked to situating learning in the lives of students and building relationships. Making student voice part of the culture of the school encourages students to invest in their learning [and is] designed to bring students into authentic interactions with teachers to reshape curriculum, teaching, assessment, guidance, and other matters that influence high intellectual performance […]

Creating opportunities for authentically engaging students in interactions with teachers where they can voice their own perspectives and respond to the perspectives of the teachers can provide vehicles for cognitive development as well as social development … When they are provided with the proper engagement, [students] can … become participants in genuine dialogue or discourse with teachers to analyze and intervene in real issues that have a direct impact on them. They begin to transition from an egocentric focus and to “de-center” their outlook, seeing their teacher’s perspectives, enhancing their ability to think critically, synthesize, hypothesize, theorize, generalize, and determine cause and effect relationships … The students’ voices also provide windows into their frames of reference, enabling their teachers to identify what they value and what affects how they view the world, facilitating bridges for relationships, lesson planning, and eliciting their strenghts and interests.

-Yvette Jackson, The Pedagogy of Confidence, pp. 99-100. (New York: Columbia U. Teacher’ College Press, 2011).

Motivational and behavioral problems are bound to occur for the simple reason that classrooms have rules, requests, requirements, and agendas that are sometimes at odds with students’ preferences and natural inclinations. Under such conditions, students sometimes complain and ex- press negative affect. Students say, for instance, that’s boring, you are asking us to do too much, it’s too hard, it’s just busy work, other teachers don’t ask us to do that, and so on. When teachers acknowledge, accept, and even welcome expressions of negative affect, they communicate an understanding of the students’ perspectives and put themselves in a position to receive students’ negative emotionality as constructive information that can help teachers better (a) align, or realign, students’ inner motivation with their classroom activity and (b) transform an instructional activity from “something not worth doing” (in the eyes of the students) into “something worth doing.” Such acceptance is not the norm, however, as teachers often respond to students’ expressions of negative affect with counter-directives and power-assertions to suppress these criticisms (Assor et al., 2002; Assor et al.,2005). Such a reaction may leave the student with the impression that the teacher is insensitive to his or her concerns. “Quit your complaining and just get the work done” sends a message that the work is more important than is the students’ emotionality.
Acknowledging and accepting students’ expressions of negative affect is particularly important (motivationally speaking) when teachers respond to students’ listlessness (e.g., passivity during learning activities), poor performance (e.g., sloppy or careless work, low grades), and behavior problems (e.g., disrespectful language, skipping class), be- cause the acknowledgment of negative affect signals the teacher’s understanding that the student is struggling and is in need of assistance and support. However, some student acts go beyond complaining and expressing negative affect to involve aggression and harm, and under these conditions the need for teacher control may be appropriate (to protect the welfare of a victim). Indeed, students themselves say, “teachers need to come off as someone who has control” (Woolfolk Hoy & Weinstein, 2006, p. 185), partly because they want the teacher to create an environment in which stu- dents feel safe. So acknowledging and accepting students’ expressions of negative affect is about giving students voice and understanding their perspective, rather than about be- ing permissive or relinquishing one’s responsibilities as theclassroom teacher and authority.

-Johnmarshall Reeve, “Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive,” pp. 170-171. (Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 2009, p. 159-165).

In her 1984 review of the literature, Hodgson (as quoted in Ramsden, 2003) wrote that many studies “…underline the vital importance of respect and consideration for students in effective university teaching” (p. 74). Ramsden (2003)
supported this conclusion by noting that, “The emotional aspect of the teacher-student relationship is much more important than the traditional advice on methods and techniques of lecturing would suggest” (p. 74). Students were more likely to understand the content of a lecture if the lecturer interacted with them in a way that encouraged involvement, commitment, and interest. “Various studies of student ratings of teaching in higher education also identify a recurring factor variously labeled ‘student centeredness,’ ‘respect for students,’ and ‘lecturer student rapport’ among other aspects…” (ibid)
Rita Rodabaugh (1996) provided useful examples of how instructors can communicate respect for students: give them ample time to ask questions, allow challenges to the professor’s views, and encourage open debate […]

Terenzini and Pascarella (1994) described a number of “myths” related to teaching and learning, one of which was, “Students’ academic and non-academic experiences are separate and unrelated areas of influence on learning” (p. 31). Carson (1996) adds “Studies of the relationship between emotions and cognition explain in another way the link between how students feel about their professors and how they perform in the classroom … Young and Shaw (1999) asked both students and teachers to identify the factors that contribute most to effective teaching. Both agreed that the most important ones included not only traditional emphasis on motivating students and communicating clearly but also a stress on empathy with students’ needs, a factor clearly related to rapport.
-as quoted in Neil Fleming, “Establishing Rapport: Personal Interaction and Learning,” Idea Paper # 39.

The emotional bond between students and teacher – for better or worse – accounts for whether students learn … Effective teachers … are able to connect personally with students … [Unfortunately], Cognitive psychology cannot tell us how to be personable and likable to students …

One thing fiancee’s seem to have over cognitive psychology, then, is the ability to remind you that when people feel like you value them no matter what (as Carl Rogers put it, when you treat them with “unconditional positive regard“), they tend to respond positively. This may include hearing some stuff you might not always like (within certain boundaries of course), just like any other relationship, but, paradoxically, it just may earn your students’ respect in the end.


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Photo by David Shankbone.

Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it. Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that- that’s what life is. You might be really good. You might find out something about yourself that’s really special and if you’re not good, who cares? You tried something. Now you know something about yourself.

-Amy Poehler, Yes Please

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A Brief Anecdote about Autonomy Supportive Pedagogy

1998, 11th grade English class, Kenmore, New York.  When I was a junior in high school we had to do a big paper for our English class. There was much discussion of MLA format. There was a big list of topics. One was about music. I chose that one and said I wanted to write about my favorite book, John Lydon’s autobiographical account of his time in the Sex Pistols, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and punk rock. She said no – punk rock wasn’t scholarly enough.

The next year I got kicked out of high school with like a 32 out of 100 overall grade point average. My principal said I had no respect for authority and I was going to end up in prison.  I subsequently spent most of my time in my room reading literature and working as a dishwasher.

2012: Doctoral course, Post-WWII American Fiction, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.   After reading Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel Less than Zero in seminar, I spent a lot of time thinking about a spat between David Foster Wallace and Ellis. It bothered me. I went to talk to my professor about it. “Bret’s just a punk rocker,” she said. We then discussed a bit about how Less than Zero was named after an Elvis Costello song, and what the connections between punk and the novel might be more generally. “Why don’t you write about that?” she said, referring to our major final paper. “Less than Zero and punk rock.”

I got to thinking about this recently while ordering John Lydon’s new yet-to-be-released in the US autobiography from Amazon.UK. Alas, I suspect you don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to figure out why I do what I do, but it is interesting to me to think about the way we support our students’ learning in the classroom. As Existential psychologist Rollo May put it in a slightly different context, are our students empty vessels we want to fill with knowledge or “being[s] to be understood?” I suspect our students’ perceptions of how we’ve answered that question determines how they’ll remember us.

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Library as Place, Or What’s Up With this Whole Barnes & Noble-As-Library Situation?

I’ve had the following experience several times recently: there I am,  hanging around Barnes & Noble, and, having just finished perusing the “Existential Dread” section of the store, I make my way over to the “Barnes & Noble Cafe” to grab a coffee and look upon the Pumpkin Spice Latte drinkers with utter contempt. And then it hits me: this place has turned into a library. Except better. Because people actually like to hang out here.

I’m really struck by how many people just go there to buy a coffee, hang out, and peruse books and magazines they have no intention of buying. Every time I see that I think, “Wait. Why are they here? Why didn’t they come to the library? It’s just like this, only … better, right?!”

It seems to me there must be something wrong about that line of thinking, though. As their mere presence treating Barnes & Noble like a library attests, a lot of people don’t seem to think the library is better.  Why? Why would you rather go hang around this commercial place that doesn’t really even particularly want you to just browse their stuff, rather than the place whose very existence is predicated on you doing exactly that?

I don’t really know what to make of it, but it gives me pause. I know people browsing & hanging around bookstores is nothing new. I love to do it. But I usually go there with the intention to buy something, when (at least it seems to me as I stand there stink-eying people holding peppermint mochas), most of these Barnes & Noblers don’t really seem to have that intention at all.  I suspect the answer has something to do with the nature of the various spaces (I know there’s lots of literature on “library as place” which I should be more well-versed in), people’s habits and the things they’re aware of, coffee shops, and so forth. But I’m curious.  Is this absolute doom for libraries? Is there something more Barnes & Nobley we could be doing better? Does Ryan Gosling ever not look devastatingly handsome? Anyone have any thoughts on any of this?

RG Pumpkin Spice


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Friday Quote

When you try very hard to do something by the time you can do it it is easy to do, so effort is maybe a kind of prayer.

-Diane Arbus


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