Perceptions and Reality

Across the years, I’ve written about the value of active learning numerous times. In 2014, I wrote about a comprehensive meta-analysis on STEM-related college classes. The study compiled data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses and found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning. Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments. Based on the reported participation numbers across the studies, the researchers estimated “there would be over $3,500,000 in saved tuition dollars for the study population, had all students been exposed to active learning.”

I’m returning to this 2014 post and research because of a recent study that was published in Science (and reported on the Faculty Focus blog). Described as the “largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” the study monitored almost 550 faculty teaching 700 courses at 25 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The results were pretty alarming. 55% of the STEM classroom interactions involved lecture-based instruction. Faculty Focus interviewed one of the researchers, Marilyne Stains for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and discussed some of the findings. In the post, Stains discussed how their research used direct observation over self-reported surveys.

“Surveys and self-reports are useful to get people’s perceptions of what they are doing,” Stains said. “If you ask me about how I teach, I might tell you, ‘I spend 50 percent of my class having students talk to each other.’ But when you actually come to my class and observe, you may find that it’s more like 30 percent. Our perception is not always accurate.”

And that’s where the study and the Faculty Focus article offer some assistance. In their research, Stains and her colleagues used a tool called COPUS (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM) to conduct their observations. The tool was funded by the National Science Foundation and is available for free online so instructors can study their own instructional practices. There are even instructions for collecting data and a video to improve inter-rater reliability.  A motivated STEM instructor could have a colleague or two observe their classroom and better identify how their classes are actually taught. In the study, the researchers suggest conducting at least four observations to provide “a reliable characterization of instructional practices.”

Another interesting finding from the study was that despite faculty identifying classroom layout and class size as being barriers to implementing active learning strategies, “flexible classroom layouts and small course sizes do not necessarily lead to an increase in student-centered practices.” Looking at the data, regardless of the classroom physical layout, didactic instructional strategies were employed in most of the observed lessons. Considering the overwhelming research on the academic benefits for active learning, I find this shocking. But so do the researchers. At the end of the article, they call for institutions to challenge “the status quo” and to revise “their tenure, promotion, and merit-recognition policies to incentivize and reward implementation of evidence-based instructional practices.”  And that’s a great starting point but I wonder whether it’s enough.

I’m reminded of another blog post I shared in 2016 where I discussed “alternative frameworks” and their impact on people’s beliefs and actions. In science, these alternative frameworks impact how we teach different concepts. For instance, I can tell students thousands of times that gravity acts on heavy and light object the same way and that they fall (and accelerate) at the same rates when air resistance is disregarded. But their alternative frameworks get in the way. Their lived experiences have taught them differently and me telling them doesn’t change their perceptions.

In a way, that’s what has happened with the active learning research. Despite hearing about the benefits of active learning, teachers perceive that lecture works better and me them won’t change their teaching. Using promotion, tenure and merit-recognition systems to force teachers to employ student-centered teaching may change their actions but won’t change their perceptions of how students learn. Maybe the COPUS system could be used to support a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning study so faculty and departments can research how using active learning strategies impact student performance. It’s a little harder than just telling (or forcing) people to change their practice but, in the long run, it may confront both the perceptions and the reality of their work.


Resources for Teaching Larger Classes

I received an email from a colleague recently asking about resources for teaching larger classes. Clearly, teaching larger classes presents unique challenges that smaller classes do not. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re only able to lecture to them. Here are some resources to help you better engage students and support their learning in your larger class.

Think like a tutor. This advice comes from a Faculty Focus post written by Dr. Maryellen Weimer, author of Learner-Centered Teaching. Rather than offering a list of teaching strategies for working with students in large classes, Weimer takes a different approach and discusses the qualities that instructors of large classes need to embrace. Weimer advises that professors of large classes need to be nurturant, socratic, progressive, indirect, reflective, and encouraging. While the post doesn’t provide specifics about how to navigate the challenges of large classrooms, it offers a mindset for how to accomplish this task successfully.

Focus on effective strategies. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University houses a treasure trove of strategies for teaching large classes. They recognize that in some situations teaching a large class can feel like managing “a small city.” In their teaching guide, they offer practical strategies for taking attendance, dealing with cheating, integrating technology and grading student work.

Make it active. Can active learning work in large classrooms?  Absolutely. Check out this research that was published in Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal. Physics professors incorporated peer instruction strategies in classes with more than 200 students and found significant improvements over traditional, lecture-based instruction. In focus group interviews, students in the large classes reported that they “love the Physics classes because they’re actually good fun.” Rather than sitting silently and taking notes, students in peer instruction environments interact with their classmates to help make sense of the material.  As one student commented, “that’s when I learn the most. That is revolutionary.”

Mix it up. While peer instruction is one effective active learning strategy for large classrooms, there are others that work too.  In this article from Cell Biology, the authors share seven active learning strategies that can be infused specifically in large-enrollment classroom.  While the article leans heavily on science-related topics, the strategies can be successfully implement in almost any course.

Find what works for you. That’s the advice from Dr. Sallie M. Ives, the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching at UNC Charlotte.  She writes, “there is no one way to teach a large class. We have to take into account our teaching style, the characteristics of our students, and the goals and objectives of our course.” With these contexts in mind, Ives offers a Survival Handbook that provides practical solutions to managing the chaos that can sometimes occur in large classes.  Still need some help? Check out Tips for Teaching Large Classes written by Dr. Jenny Lloyd-Strovas from the Teaching, Learning and Professional Development Center at Texas Tech University.


Be More Stubborn

When my wife and I first became parents, we’d get lots of advice from experienced mothers and fathers on how best to raise kids.  Some would say things like “provide lots of structure” or “tired kids are happy kids” or “let them experience the natural consequences of their choices.”  As new parents, we waded through these pieces of wisdom, looking for the ones that best reflected the types of parents we hoped to become.  Across all of the advice we received, the one that my mother-in-law shared stands as the keystone to our roles as parents.

“Be more stubborn than your children.”

As most parents know, kids can be pretty stubborn.  Children can get fixated on a toy or an activity and scream and yell until they get their way.  And they can be resolved in their emotion and steadfast in their desire.  They want their way and they’re prepared to fight it out and create a fuss until their parents give in. But that’s when the “be more stubborn” parenting mantra needs to kick in.  If a parent gives in to every demand a child makes, long term, the child can become selfish or lack respect for their parents or become undisciplined.  Being “more stubborn” means having faith in your choice as a parent and waiting it out.  While the child is focused on the short game, as a parent, you need to focus on the long game.  It’s not always easy to wade through the cries, screams and temper tantrums but, in most cases, the resolve pays off.

I was reminded about this parenting mantra recently after a meeting with some colleagues.  We were discussing a class that one of us was teaching and how the students were resisting the teaching strategies that my colleague was employing.  As she explained the goals with her assignment and the strategies she was using, I tried to alleviate her self-doubt and explain that what she was doing was pedagogically sound.  Despite her students’ resistance, my colleague was trying foster an active learning environment in her class which would ultimately lead to more student engagement and increased student learning.   I also shared the research on how active learning was a little like broccoli; students know that it’s good for them but they don’t always enjoy it.  I blogged about this research a few years ago in a response to our campus newspaper’s attack on faculty who “weren’t doing their job.”  Despite our best intentions, many students want us to lecture to them so they can passively receive information.

But that’s when we need to be more stubborn than our students.  If we know that the instructional choices we’re making are in the students’ academic interests, we need to face the resistance and be resolved in our expertise and decisions.  While I doubt that many of us will face temper tantrums from our students, we may face some individuals who don’t readily see the value in the assignments we’ve developed or the instructional techniques we’re using.  In these instances, we may need to patiently explain some of our overall goals to help build buy-in from students.  In the end, however, like the parent facing the cries and screams of a difficult child, we may need to be more stubborn than our students and remember that what we’re doing is in the students’ be interests, whether they recognize it or not.

Don’t be a denier!

On Facebook and Twitter lately, my friends have been sharing their concerns about “deniers.” Deniers are people who despite overwhelming evidence opposing their opinion refuse to change their views.  Most commonly, the term is used to describe climate change deniers.  The scientific community has presented tons of evidence in support of global climate change.  Despite this evidence, there are still some people who choose to ignore or discredit the available evidence and continue believing that human beings have little impact on the environment.

While the term “climate change denier” is in our common vernacular these days, the term “denier” has been used to describe others as well.  Following World War II, some people doubted that the Holocaust happened and that Germany had interned and killed millions of Jews.  The movie Denial details a real legal battle that occurred in England between Deborah Lipstadt, a historian, and David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier.  Despite evidence that showed that mass genocide had occurred during World War II in Germany, Irving continued to hold steadfast publicly.  Examining Irving’s position, Lipstadt writes:

“(Irving) demands “absolute documentary proof” when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving’s tactics, but of those of deniers in general.”

I don’t want to go too far down the Holocaust or climate change rabbit holes here but I think the term “denier” deserves a little attention educationally.  In a discussion with a colleague last week, we lamented the resistance of some faculty to adopt active learning strategies.  The educational evidence is overwhelming (which I’ve shared that evidence on this blog over the years). Despite this evidence, some educators choose to employ lecture-based strategies.  These “active learning deniers” are also pretty willing to share their voices in opposition to student-centered strategies.  Take this Chronicle article titled “Active Learning Is Found to Foster Higher Pass Rates in STEM Courses.”  In the comments section, one instructor wrote:

For all we know the pass rates are higher but the knowledge communicated, level of intellectual effort, and retention of knowledge are lower. So-called “success” by one meta-analysis outcome alone is poor measurement of anything.”

The commenter isn’t alone in denying active learning evidence, however.  Take the following Guardian article titled In Praise of the University Lecture.  The author, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent, dismisses outright “all the buzzwords – innovative teaching, active learning, student engagement” and stands beside the practices of lecturing.  The lecture, Furedi writes, is:

the fundamental ritual of academic life. It is the one experience that has the most potential of forging a community of learners. It creates a common intellectual experience for students and allows otherwise solitary undergraduates to become part of a continuous conversation.

In another article, Furedi dismisses active learning evidence and instructors who choose to use the pedagogical approach to support student learning.

“One of the reasons why people use active learning is because they’re worried about losing students, boring students. If you’re simply interested in keeping bums in seats, it rewards people for time served. Active learning may get good results in terms of retention, but it may be an illusory outcome.”

While it’s hard to take Holocaust and climate change deniers seriously, active learning deniers may find greater support among their colleagues.  Some still see teaching and learning as an individual craft that is subject to our own experiences and beliefs.  Teaching this way, however, denies the mounting body of evidence to the contrary.

Promoting a Pedagogy of Pleasure

This semester, I’m leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) built upon the book The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. Modeled after the “slow food” movement, the book is intended to “challenge the culture of speed in the academy” and offers suggestions on how faculty can slow down and enjoy their work in higher education.

Our FLC meets regularly to discuss chapters we’ve read and examine ways we can make changes at our institution.  This week, we read a chapter titled “Pedagogy and Pleasure” where the authors discuss ways to discuss the importance of the affective aspects of teaching and learning. “Students,” Berg and Seeber write, “make no distinction between how they felt in a course and how they thought; their emotions – whether positive or negative – were integral to how they learned” (p. 36). The authors also cite an “affective learning manifesto” produced by the MIT Media Lab where they discuss the connection between affective and cognitive functions.  “A slight mood does not just make you feel a little better but also induces a different kind of thinking, characterized by a tendency toward greater creativity and flexibility in problem solving.”

After reading the chapter, it’s clear that positive learning environments can have an impact on student learning and that instructors play a large role with the affective dimensions fostered in our classrooms. It’s important for instructors to not just facilitate learning but to develop relationships with their students.  These teacher/student relationships can foster a sense of belonging and affiliation in the class and help to motivate and engage the students to learn. Although I agree with the need to promote a “pedagogy of pleasure,” I disagree with one of the challenges that the authors identify as undermining the “pleasure of teaching.”  Early in the chapter, Berg and Seeber write that “the current emphasis on ‘evidence-based practices’ and ‘processes to measure impact’ in teaching and learning entirely overlooks pleasure” (p. 34). While I think the authors are really responding to the corporatization of higher education and the explosion of buzz words in the field, their attack of “evidence-based practices” is misplaced.  I’ve written before about the power of active learning strategies and the mounting evidence to show its effectiveness in collegiate classrooms.  But I would also argue that active learning strategies aren’t devoid of pleasure.  In fact, active learning employs some of the same techniques that the authors identify as promoting a pedagogy of pleasure. For instance, Berg and Seeber discuss the need for instructors’ to actively listen to their students during class.  “Listening,” the authors write, “is an important inducement to learning.”   The traditional lecture environment, however, offers few opportunities for instructors to listen or for student voices to be heard.  Active learning, on the other hand, puts student activity at the center of the learning process. By having students sharing their voices and ideas in the classroom, active learning strategies foster the type of pleasurable, student-centered learning environments that Berg and Seeber promote.

Overall, however, the Slow Professor draws attention to an aspect of teaching that is often ignored.  Teaching (and learning) should be a pleasurable endeavor. This doesn’t mean that it should be devoid of rigor or high expectations. But the work should be enjoyable.  Any “pedagogy of pleasure,” however, must recognize active learning not as a buzzword to be avoided but as an evidence-based strategy to be employed.

Where do we start?

I came across a study recently that sort of stopped me in my tracks.  The study made absolute sense but the presentation really made me think about how I offer professional development for faculty and how I teach my students on campus.  Here’s a synopsis.

In a study involving 13 different professors at a large university in Canada, researchers examined how participants visualized effective teaching and the types of learning strategies they used.  The researchers also examined the types of instructional objectives the participants had for their students and how they integrated technology into their classroom.  Through the interviews, the researchers were able to categorize the participating professors into three different categories based on their models of effective teaching:  teacher-centered, engagement-centered or learning-centered.  This categorization on its own isn’t that surprising.  We all work with colleagues who are teacher-centered and lecture through classes.  We have colleagues who work to provide engaging classes and others who focus heavily on their students’ development.  The interesting part, however, is how these categorizations matched with the professors’ instructional strategies, learning objectives and levels of technology integration.  Professors who were categorized as “teacher-centered” tended to use instructional strategies and technologies that supported didactic, lecture-based classrooms.  The professors who were categorized as being “engagement-centered” tended to use strategies and technologies that reflected this framework.  The ones who were categorized as being “learning-centered” used technologies and teaching strategies that supported this.

On first glance, this research shouldn’t be that surprising.  If instructors believe that students learn a certain way, it makes sense that their chosen strategies and technologies match those beliefs.  The challenge, however, is that the professors in the study were all placed in active learning classrooms where the tools, technologies and classroom layout were designed to support collaborative learning.  While the instructors had access to means to support engagement-centered or learning-centered teaching, they chose teaching-centered instruction.

So, why do I find this research article so powerful?  I think it comes down to how institutions drive innovation.  Many schools and colleges are investing in building new learning spaces and incorporating new technologies into their institutions.  The hope is that these new tools and spaces on their own will act as catalysts to spark innovative teaching practices.  But that’s not how it happens.  To really change practice, fundamental beliefs of teaching and learning have to be addressed.  Simply building new classrooms or purchasing new computers isn’t going to make an impact.  We have to start with learning.

But that’s also the disheartening part of the research.  We know that active learning works.  But the inertia of teacher-centered instruction is overpowering.  It’s the model that many instructors experienced as students and in which they were successful.  These lived histories inform their pedagogical beliefs and impact the instructional strategies they employ and the instructional technologies they use.  While we can provide access and training for different ways of teaching and integrating technology, the reality is unless we promote evidence-based conceptualizations of how students learn, our efforts won’t make much of an impact.


Gebre, E, Saroyan, A. & Aulls, M. (2015). Conceptions of effective teaching and perceived use of computer technologies in active learning classrooms.  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27 (2), 204-220.

More evidence of Active Learning

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from last year.  This post was originally shared in May 2014 and discussed some of the research on the power of active learning.  Enjoy.

In a report discussed on Inside Higher Education, researchers from two major universities completed a meta-analysis of studies that examined the use of active learning in STEM related collegiate courses. The researchers, all professors of Biology and Ecology, were motivated to examine the “pipeline problem.”  Even though there’s an increasing demand for STEM prepared students in the United States, students who enter college planning to study a STEM-related field often do not complete the degree.  In fact, the researchers write, “less than 40% of US students who enter university with an interest in STEM, and just 20% of STEM-interested underrepresented minority students, finish with a STEM degree.”  In the US, universities are losing students in the STEM pipeline and the researchers wondered “why?”

Maybe, the researcher wondered, it had something to do with how STEM instructors taught.  While many educational theorists push for more constructivist pedagogy, the STEM community hasn’t necessarily adopted active learning strategies over more traditional, lecture-based instruction.  Understanding that “scientists are committed to teaching based on evidence rather than tradition,” the researchers set out to examine the evidence on active learning in STEM collegiate courses.

Compiling data from 225 different studies on active learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related courses, the researchers found that students in lecture-based courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that utilized active learning.  Across the studies, the average failure rates were 21.8% in classes that employed active learning and 33.8% in traditional lecture classroom environments.   How compelling was the analysis to the researchers?  Since they were traditionally trained scientists, they communicated their findings in language that other scientists would understand.  “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  Taking it one step further, the researchers estimated the financial cost of the failures in lecture-based courses.  Based on the reported participation numbers across the studies, the researchers estimated “there would be over $3,500,000 in saved tuition dollars for the study population, had all students been exposed to active learning.”  Based on the analysis they conducted, the researchers were convinced; active learning works.

While the research seems compelling, it’s clear that the tradition of lecturing is not easily set aside.  Looking at the comments on the Inside Higher Education article, several people have questioned the research, undermined the comparisons or attacked constructivism entirely.  Or look at the article written on the Guardian last fall.  Titled “In praise of the university lecture,” the author, a professor of sociology, discusses the importance of lecturing and how it helps faculty demonstrate “scholarship in action.”  Lost, however, is a focus on student learning and achievement.  But that’s the most important part of what we do.  Education isn’t just a performance that faculty conduct for students.  It’s an active pursuit that should involve all members of a classroom community, faculty and students alike.  And data shows that incorporating active learning strategies can positively impact student learning.  I find it surprising, however, that a profession that values evidence-based arguments so readily dismisses research that challenges tradition.