Website Wednesday: Active Learning Protocols

Website Wednesday is a (mostly) weekly feature in which we highlight one (or a couple) of sites from the Billions floating around the Intertoobz that just might help you with your Herculean task of educating inquiring minds. Any and all suggestions for future editions are welcome.

Over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve had a number of colleagues ask about or ask for ideas related to discussions and active learning. For a long time, my primary recommendations was Stephen Brookfield’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. It’s a great book, but maybe a little wonky and philosophical (in the sense of being really thorough in its consideration and discussion of discussion), which maybe not everyone is as enthusiastic about as I am.

Happily, this summer I read a book called Discussion in the Classroom by Jay Howard, and it is my new first recommendation. Howard is a sociologist and so the book features his findings on the sociology of the college classroom (with a nice overview of others’ research, too) and makes a few critical, simple points about a couple of classroom culture obstacles (e.g., norms like “civil attention” and “consolidation of responsibility”) to good discussion. The book also integrates multiple various, easy, effective (in my experience) remedies to address them. Some of the ideas I knew from my own trial and error, some I learned from other sources, including colleagues, books, and (mostly) my personal teaching hero (to whom I’m married). For me the book was less helpful in terms of providing new strategies than it was helpful in clarifying why some of my favorite approaches turn out to be effective (and why some others that I liked before trying them didn’t work so well). It also includes chapters on grading participation and online participation, among others, and it’s short and easy to read.

But maybe you don’t want a book to read. Fair enough.

Lucky for you, some of my favorite strategies are published in slightly different form on a website dedicated to Common Core-related teaching resources. They are published in the form of “protocols” which are basically recipes for action. The site describes them as practices for elementary and middle-schoolers (3rd to 8th grade), but they are easily adaptable to our classrooms given the similarities in size and set-up. In truth, the protocols could be used with first graders as well as college students–the complexity of the task derives from the complexity of the text, not the protocol (though, the protocols can be adjusted in that regard, too, just by taking the basic structure and altering the specific task or questions as appropriate. Favorites  for processing text (and, in the process, learning to effectively summarize/analyze/compare texts) include: “Concentric Circles,” “Jigsaw,”  “Say Something,” “Written Conversation,” “Rank, Talk, Write,”  “Popcorn Read,” “Tea Party,” and “Take a Stand.”  Check ’em out.


Ditching Lecture: Now With Research!

John Hader passed this link to an NPR story/podcast about research related to lectures a few weeks back, which I’ve been saving while making plans to unveil it to my students.

Hestenes got the idea for the series when a colleague came to him with a problem. The students in his introductory physics courses were not doing well: Semester after semester, the class average never got above about 40 percent.

“I noted that the reason for that was that his examination questions were mostly qualitative, requiring understanding of the concepts rather than just calculational, using formulas, which is what most of the instructors did,” Hestenes says.

Hestenes had a suspicion students were just memorizing the formulas and never really getting the concepts. So he and a colleague developed a test to look at students’ conceptual understanding of physics. It’s a test Maryland’s Redish has given his students many times.

Here’s a question from the test: “Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be…”

The possible answers include about half as long for the heavier ball, about half as long for the lighter ball, or the same time for both. This is a fundamental concept but even some people who’ve taken physics get this question wrong…

While most physics students can recite Newton’s second law of motion, Harvard’s Mazur says, the conceptual test developed by Hestenes showed that after an entire semester they understood only about 14 percent more about the fundamental concepts of physics…

The test has now been given to tens of thousands of students around the world and the results are virtually the same everywhere. The traditional lecture-based physics course produces little or no change in most students’ fundamental understanding of how the physical world works.

“The classes only seem to be really working for about 10 percent of the students,” Arizona State’s Hestenes says. “And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own.”

He says that listening to someone talk is not an effective way to learn any subject.

“Students have to be active in developing their knowledge,” he says. “They can’t passively assimilate it.”

This is something many people have known intuitively for a long time — the physicists just came up with the hard data. Their work, along with research by cognitive scientists, provides a compelling case against lecturing.

It arrived in my mailbox just as my student evaluations did, in which I found the overwhelmingly most frequent suggestion to be something like, “Discussion and student engagement are great, but it would be better if you just lectured more and simply told us what the readings mean.” And I get it–there’s a lot of value in a well done lecture; I don’t deny it.

Furthermore, there’s a satisfying simplicity to class performance that amounts to taking dictation (which is what I truly suspect most (not all) of the students  who made that particular suggestion were asking for–a simpler, more straightforward path to a grade: listen, copy, memorize, repeat. It’s both efficient (for the student), consistent with what some (not all) of them expect schooling to be about, and pretty non-threatening. They figure they can do it or they can’t–it’s schooling as performance. (Just to be clear, I am not universally conflating a lecture based teaching approach with the kind of rote regurgitation approach described above. I recognize that they do not necessarily travel together, and that some of the students asking for more lecture were seeking better understanding and guidance, not merely lists of answers that they could regurgitate. In the student comments, though, that asked for more lecture, most of them included the phrase “just tell us what it (the reading) means.” It is that second part that I am particularly averse to endorsing and particularly interested in disrupting as an expectation of what learning (particularly in higher ed environments) entails.)). And there is an attractiveness about simplicity, especially for stressed out and thinly spread people (like many of our students).

While discussing the evals with my beloved (an educator par excellence, and the person from whom I’ve stolen all of my best ideas), she suggested that I make those critiques front and center in my classes–presenting them to my new groups, saying, “Here’s what students say about my classes. Here’s what they say the want. And here’s why I’m not going to provide that.”

I thought it was a great idea and I plan on doing it (though I’ve decided to let them get into the classes a little bit and see how they work first), and when I do, I’m going to play this story for them.

Because what they want is not always what they need, and what they think is best for them is not always what actually is best for them.

h/t to Hader for the pointer.