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Doing their job

Last semester, a student reporter wrote a scathing article in our local campus newspaper attacking faculty and how they weren’t “doing their job.”  It seems that the student was being asked to complete group projects and give classroom presentations on different topics.  The classroom didn’t match her view of what collegiate instruction should look like.  She writes “it’s your job to teach me at an undergraduate level, you better get up off your chair and teach me something…. (You) should at least be expected to lecture or in some way relay the information to us.”

While there are many aspects of the student’s article that I find troubling, in this post, I’d like to focus on her perception of what undergraduate teaching should be.  While her instructors are incorporating ways to get her more involved in the learning process, it’s clear that she feels that the teachers “aren’t doing their jobs.”   Looking at Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Undergraduate Education, however, a different picture emerges.  Based on her descriptions of classroom activities, her instructors were encouraging active learning, developing reciprocity and collaboration amongst students and respecting diverse talents and ways of thinking.  While it may not be the type of learning environment the student wanted, the instruction she describes definitely involves elements of good undergraduate education.

My real concern with the article, though, is what the student seems to want from her undergraduate education.  I worry that she sees education as a passive activity, one that involves students as spectators to a show constructed by instructors.  As a social constructivist, I see education very differently.  In my classes, I create opportunities where students construct their understanding by interacting socially with their peers (and with me) and make meaning through experiential learning.  While I’m designing those learning activities, very little of what I do is the type of chalk-and-talk instruction that the student reporter sees as part of “my job.”  Learning is hard work and students need to be the ones doing the heavy lifting.   I wonder whether the student reporter would see the educational value of my class or whether she would just have to “grin and bear it” as she does with many of her classes.

The student reporter’s attack of her classroom experiences reminds me of a recent article on active learning I read in the Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  In the paper titled “Is active learning like broccoli?” researchers examined retention, engagement and enjoyment of classes that used active learning strategies versus classes that did not.  The study involved over a thousand students in an introductory Psychology course broken into different sections. Some sections utilized outside-of-class group activities to help students actively learn the content.  Other sections did not. Students enrolled in the active learning sections reported significantly higher levels of engagement and retention of course material than the students enrolled in the sections that did not employ these strategies.  Looking at the class enjoyment statistics, however, shows something very different.  Students in the non-active learning strategies section reported higher levels of enjoyment than their active learning peers.  In examining the results, the researchers write that “students in the active learning condition resented the ‘intellectual effort’ necessary for successful completion of the activities.”  And that may be what’s really going on in the student reporter’s tirade.  While she is complaining about whether professors are doing their jobs, I wonder whether she fully understands her job as a student.

Article cited:

Smith, C.V. and Cardaciotto, L. (2011) Is active learning like broccoli? Student perceptions of learning in large lecture classes. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11, 53-61.

One Response

  1. Well said Ollie. As a social constructivist myself, I was very disheartened by the article. As a matter of fact, it prompted a good discussion in my 321 class, and they gave me some insight stating that in general students who are interested in the shortest way to the A don’t mind lecture as long as assessments are clear. However, students who have a desire to actually engage in the content and think critically and creatively about the content prefer the interaction with their peers and their professors. We do, however, have to keep in mind that true collaboration is very different from just assigning students to groups and giving them a task. Collaboration is well designed and intentionally focused on learning.

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