Saturday, January 17, 2015

Yet more reasons for hands-on group activities: "Students study harder if professors hold them accountable!"

I just finished passively re-reading an article published by the New York Times at the end of last year. Entitled Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science, it reminds us just how passive an activity it is to listen to extended prose—and, by extension, to read extended prose. As I began to passively read this article, having already spent about 80 minutes passively reading a host of others, my unengaged brain began to drift off.

Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.
Me, too [snore]. But then a shocking dichotomy jolted me out of my stupor:
In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading.
How could two classes be taught in such a contrasting fashion? What kind of out-of-the-box thinking, what gall, did it take to teach the second class in such a revolutionary way? My eyes widened when I learned that these are two sections of the same class:
Both are introductory chemistry classes at the University of California campus here in Davis, but they present a sharp contrast.
Nor could I believe that so many of the changes that have proved so unequivocally fruitful in K12 schools were actually beginning to gain ground in colleges:
Many of the ideas — like new uses of technology, requiring students to work in groups and having them do exercises in class rather than just listen to the teacher — have caught on, to varying degrees, in grade schools and high schools.
Riveted, I read on:
In their classes, Dr. Singer and Dr. Uvarov walk up to students, pace the aisles, and eavesdrop on working groups. They avoid simple yes-or-no questions and every query has a follow-up, or two or three.  
Before each biology discussion session, students are supposed to go online to do some reading and answer questions. The teaching assistants then know who has done the reading, who has understood it and whether the group is weak in some spots, so they can tailor lessons accordingly. Students complain about being unable to escape scrutiny, but they acknowledge that they learn more. “I don’t like getting called on like that,” said Jasmine Do, a first-year student who was one of those singled out by Dr. Uvarov. “But it makes you participate and pay attention because there’s always something new going on, and it makes the time go by really fast.”  
Faculty members have smartphone apps that let them call on students at random, rather than just on those who volunteer. When the instructors post multiple-choice questions on big screens, students answer with remote controls, providing instant feedback on how much information is sinking in and allowing faculty members to track each student’s attendance and participation, even in a class of 500.
I couldn’t believe it. Who could have predicted that students would be more likely to do the reading if you called on them and held them accountable for it in class?

Even more compelling is the underlying research. It turns out just one study, but multiple studies support this approach:
Multiple studies have shown that students fare better with a more active approach to learning, using some of the tools being adopted here at Davis, while in traditional classes, students often learn less than their teachers think.
Well… actually one of the studies is about tutorials in recitation sessions; not about making lecture classes interactive. But the other study (one I blogged about earlier) demonstrated (as an earlier NYTimes article explains) how giving students more in-class activities, as well as online activities “assigned to be completed before class along with textbook reading” and “intended to force students to think about the material”—with the instructor able to see which students had completed these activities—resulted in [drumroll…] higher scores on posttests. Furthermore:
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, [and] participated more in class...
The eye-popping takeaway of one the study’s authors:
“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. 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.”
Equally compelling is the takeaway of the Times:
Given the strength of the research findings, it seems that universities would be desperately trying to get into the act. They are not. The norm in college classes — especially big introductory science and math classes, which have high failure rates — remains a lecture by a faculty member, often duplicating what is in the assigned reading.
Noah Finkelstein, a physics professor and the director of Colorado’s overhaul efforts, agrees, adding that:
“Faculty don’t like being told what to do, and there are people who push back and say they can figure it out on their own and they know what works for them. There’s plenty of data that says they’re mistaken.”
To this, the Times adds:
Of course, telling experienced teachers that they need to learn how to teach does not always go over well, especially when they have tenure.
Yet another thing that astounded me was how unusual my own college experience was. Even in classes in which the (often tenured) professors summarized things and “told us everything we wanted to know,” and in which
Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes… A few doze. [No Internet back then]
… even in these environments, we still learned stuff. Weekly discussion sections and frequent papers kept us on top of the material. Pop quizzes would have done the same thing. Duplication of the reading material by the lecture was reinforcing (“multi-modal learning,” anyone?). Some professors even asked questions and led back and forth discussions from the podium! Student centered group activities would have detracted substantially from all this expert-driven instruction. Of course, today, we know that students are the real experts; they, alone, can construct their own learning.

But here I must interject a giant disclaimer. All the reflections I just shared were thoughts I had during the stupefying process of passively taking in the Times' extended prose (as opposed to actively engaging in hands-on group activities). I therefore have no confidence that these solitary thoughts of mine involve any higher-level thinking whatsoever, let alone real-life relevance and real-world application.


Anonymous said...

Students do study harder if professors hold them accountable. That's one reason why MOOCs have such low completion rates, and why non-credit classes that are not pre-requisites to for-credit classes have high drop out rates. But the accountability tool can range from constant hand-holding and feedback loops all the way out to one final exam after a semester of 80-minute lectures with assigned readings and a long term paper. The trick is to match the most efficient delivery of instruction with the motivation level of the students. IMO, college students who need a lot of scaffolding and being put on the spot have some maturing to do.

momof4 said...

The academic content and delivery methods that are understood and appreciated by cognitively able, well-prepared and motivated students (at any educational level) are likely to be very different from those which are understood and appreciated by students cognitively incapable, poorly-prepared and/or unmotivated. Colleges have far too many of the latter and are constantly seeking ways to "engage" them and create the fiction that they are doing college-level work. The reality is that they are taking on huge debt while doing little to nothing to enable them to repay. The "college premium" doesn't apply to "college-grad" baristas, retail clerks and bartenders.

The k-12 system does this also, under the pretense that all kids are capable of, and interested in, learning the same things, in the same classroom, in the same amount of time. In HS, most kids are now pushed into a (pretend) "college prep" program, under the delusion that college is the only viable path to personal worth and financial success.