Monday, September 8, 2014

All the news that's innovative

More of what's fit to print from last week's New York Times... First we have, from American Historical Association director James R. Grossman, an Op-Ed claiming enthusiastically that:

Fewer and fewer college professors are teaching the United States history our grandparents learned — memorizing a litany of names, dates and facts — and this upsets some people. “College-level work” now requires attention to context, and change over time; includes greater use of primary sources; and reassesses traditional narratives.
Sound familiar? Once again, it seems that our grandparents spent their school days memorizing litanies, whether in history or math. I guess that's why they were such mindless people who only knew how to spew boring, context-free facts, and who lacked the depth of historical understanding so common in today's young adults.

And who, unlike today's highly attentive kids, didn't know how to pay attention to change over time or to reassess traditional narratives.

And who missed out even more by not spending time on the primary sources that today's "little historians" are so well qualified, with the depth and breadth of their historical understanding, to assess and contextualize.

Then we have an article rhapsodizing about "the trend away from classes based on reading and listening passively to lectures, and toward a more active role for students" and explaining how, according to a new study, this "active learning raised average test scores more than 3 percentage points, and significantly reduced the number of students who failed the exams."

[Whoever said that listening to lectures is passive? Of course, the trend in question, so characterized, sounds so much more positive than "the trend away from classes based on reading and listening to lectures.]

It turns out this study involved just one class--an introductory biology class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--three sections of which "took a more traditional, lecture-based approach, and three demanded more participation by students." These sections were taught by one of the study's authors, Kelly A. Hogan, director of instructional innovation for UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. Hmm, I'm wondering whether Dr. Hogan is more likely to publish a study that supports traditional teaching, or one that supports... innovation? But let's not worry about objectivity. After all, everything seems pretty clear cut:
The more active approach gave students more in-class activities, often done in teams, including sets of online exercises. There were similar online exercises assigned to be completed before class along with textbook reading, intended to force students to think about the material rather than just memorize it, and still others for review after a lesson. Many of the exercises were ungraded, but the instructor could tell whether students had done them.
Particularly unassailable are Dr. Hogan's conclusions:
“In a traditional lecture course, [students are] not held accountable for being prepared for class, and they really don’t need to be, because an instructor is going to tell them everything he or she wants them to know,” Dr. Hogan said. “Would you read a report for a meeting if you knew your boss was going to spend 15 minutes summarizing it for you? I know I wouldn’t.”
Well, I would, if it was something I actually wanted to learn and remember. That's why I read my college history texts in addition to listening (actively) to the lectures. But clearly Dr. Hogan's students are different:
Surveys of students who had taken the class showed that those who had the more active approach were far more likely to have done the reading, and they spent more hours on the work, participated more in class and were more likely to view the class as a community.
But is it really newsworthy that many of today's students won't do the reading unless they are held accountable for it? Or that students are more likely to participate in class if they are given in-class activities to do?

Of course, there are long established ways to hold students accountable for doing the reading--ways that don't involve Hogan's innovations. But these ways are so much less... innovative.

And so much less fit to print.


Hainish said...

"Surveys of students who had taken the class showed that those who had the more active approach were far more likely to have done the reading . . ."

Some of this must be related to the planning/executive function aspect of HAVING to read the textbook FOR a specific task that you must do NOW.

Though . . . is this equivalent to advocating that college students be assigned homework??

Anonymous said...

More hand-holding. Demanding colleges and universities in the past had lectures that you would not understand, or at least not fully, unless you had done the reading, which was usually not a textbook but an original or secondary source.

lgm said...

So, in Dr. Hogan's opinion, UNC-CH is runing college courses like high school, where students that don't do the readings can sit back and remember the class discussion points made, then spit back enough on the test to get that pass. Hmm. Why not go to the athletic course up with correct attire and equipment and you've got your A.