Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Active Learning and Student Motivation

My daughter is reading the fifth Harry Potter book. The book was written for ninth or tenth grade students (around age fifteen). According to her standardized test scores, my daughter reads at a fourth or fifth grade level (around age nine or ten). According to my calendar, she's still a couple months short of her seventh birthday, and in first grade. 

No, she doesn't understand everything she reads, but she's learning how to be a better reader in the best possible way: by reading, by challenging herself, by enjoying every minute of it.

That's the idea behind active learning in the college classroom, as well. Active learning allows students to apply knowledge, to challenge themselves to learn more deeply and internalize concepts, and to enjoy the process of learning. I truly believe in the power of active learning, and that's why I've added more and more active components to my teaching.

Here's the problem (and the point of my Harry Potter analogy): active learning requires some level of intrinsic student motivation. 

Forcing my daughter to read a book on car repair that was written at the same level as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, would not necessarily teach her much about reading (granted, if she did pick up any information from the book, she'd be well on her way to a more lucrative career than her parents'). My daughter wants to read about Harry Potter. I read her the books at bedtime last year (I was just going to read the first, but she demanded we continue to the end of the series.) She loves the movies. She has the Lego sets. She asked for a robe, wand, and sack of wizarding gold for Christmas. The kid loves Harry Potter.

She's not so crazy about cars. Forcing her to actively engage in a challenging book on car repair could turn her off reading entirely.

Active learning is much harder than passively sitting through a lecture and then memorizing some facts. It requires challenging oneself, which is always, well, challenging. In the end, the resulting knowledge is greater, but the process can be more painful if the student has no inherent interest in the topic. 

Which brings me to a sad fact of active learning: I'm finding that it works better in upper-division classes than in classes that students take to fulfill gen ed requirements. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, faculty can face a penalty for using these strategies, particularly when a number of students in the classroom aren't particularly interested in the topic. My limited sample of classes suggests that active learning strategies lead to the following difficulties:

1) average and excellent students may learn more in the class, but struggling students may actually do more poorly (or at least get lower grades) than in a more traditional class because they can no longer skate through with a poor understanding but reasonable memorization of random facts. (note: this may be considered a feature, not a bug, by most professors. your students won't necessarily view it the same way.)

2) students of all abilities, but with little interest in the subject, may do poorly in the class because they resist putting in the effort required to engage with the material when the topic is "boring" or "useless" from their perspective. Again, their grades may suffer. 

3) since we are all aware that lower grades = lower teaching evaluations, it's no surprise that professors may take a hit in their student evaluations when they include an active learning component. Beyond just the lower grades, some students resent being taken out of their comfort zone (in terms of learning style), or being forced to do more work when they see the class as just a hoop to jump through.

At this point, I'm wondering if untenured faculty should avoid using active learning strategies in classes with a large number of non-majors. Any thoughts?


  1. WRT your last point I think 'untenured faculty' may be too general. If you're talking about tenure-track faculty, I'd like to think that the tenured faculty reviewing that person could understand the nuances of a teaching philosophy which includes active learning. ie looking at any teaching evaluations just as numbers without the context of the course/students/approach etc is not a good idea. If you're talking about adjunct faculty then the answer may be different. One could also consider whether students can 'vote with their feet' and choose other sections of a course.

  2. Good point. I think the issue isn't necessarily "untenured" vs. "tenured" but rather "will-be-harmed-by-uncritical-use-of-student-evaluations" vs. "won't-be-harmed". So, if you are untenured, and you do not trust that the tenured faculty reviewing your work would understand the reasons for your low evaluations, then that's something to consider when choosing your teaching strategies. Adjuncts looking for other jobs are particularly vulnerable to this.