How I Learned to Love Active Learning

When I was a student I despised “active learning.” In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, it basically involves any type of teaching that is focused on students doing an activity on their own rather than just listening to a teacher lecture. As someone who (I thought) learned pretty well from traditional lectures, I considered most forms of active learning at best an inefficient way to learn and at worst a complete waste of time. I cringed whenever I heard something like “turn to a partner and discuss.” Just tell me what I need to know so I can write it down and study it later. As a professor, I’ve come to realize the benefits of active learning. Although it needs to be implemented correctly, active learning enables students to think rather than memorize, and the discomfort it creates is actually a sign that they are learning something.

In college, I took a class designed around coming up with basic proofs for abstract mathematical concepts. The class was well-designed overall with clear notes and a great lecturer. It was a perfect example of how to do traditional teaching right. I enjoyed the class, but as I look back on it now I’m not sure it was the best way to learn. Doing well in the class essentially required memorizing the steps of doing specific proofs and replicating those steps on the exam. While that maybe had a limited benefit of helping learn those specific proofs, it didn’t do much to help someone new to proofs with what to do when they are approached with a new problem (or even a slight variant on one seen before).

I don’t think my experience in that class was unusual. As I recently talked about in a podcast interview related to these topics, most classes in a typical undergraduate education rely on showing students how to solve a bunch of problems and then making exams slight variations on those problems. This method might not be the worst way to teach how to do those specific problems, but it is a pretty poor way to teach students how to approach something new.

Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard, gives maybe the best explanation of this phenomenon I have ever heard. He describes his role in the way he used to teach his classes as one of a performer on stage. He taught traditional lectures filled with engaging experiments “like a Hollywood show.” His students loved the class, gave him great evaluations, and did well on exams. He was convinced he was “the world’s best physics teacher.” However, he soon realized that while students could do well on his problems, they did horribly on an exam on the same topics produced by an outside source. He explains:

I discovered that they could do the textbook problem but they could not answer the much simpler word based problem and the reason is that my students were simply approaching the physics as recipes which they were memorizing it was not a matter of understanding the principles no it was a matter of tell me how to do the problems – give me the recipe

Mazur goes on to relay his discovery that the problem was not really the way he was explaining the material, but rather the fundamental method that he was using to get students to learn. He found that rather than being the “sage on the stage” explaining to students how to do everything, students learned much better by trying to solve problems with the professor acting as their coach. He would ask them to answer a question, then find somebody else in the class with a different answer and try to convince them their answer was correct (or be convinced it was wrong). Only then would he go over the answer with the class. He claims that this method of learning has produced far better learning outcomes than traditional methods (I do recommend watching the whole video – he’s a great storyteller).

But this evidence is anecdotal. And it doesn’t explain why I hated active learning so much as a student. If I was really learning more from those kinds of activities, why did I still prefer traditional lectures? Part of the answer could be that those implementations of active learning methods were not the right ones. Just as a traditional lecture can be poorly taught, so can an active learning lecture. It is not a magic bullet. However, some recent research suggests a somewhat different answer. Perhaps the reason I didn’t like active learning is that learning itself is a rather unpleasant experience. I enjoyed the traditional lectures more precisely because they meant I wouldn’t have to learn.

My favorite piece of research on this topic is a study called “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom”. In this study, the authors divided students into two groups and taught each one a lecture on the same material. However, the first group was taught using a traditional lecture style and the second using an active learning style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they find that when given a test on the material, students in the active learning group performed better on average. More interestingly, the students in the active learning group reported lower levels of satisfaction with the class and the instructor and actually felt like they learned less.

In other words, the study found that the students who learned less based on an objective measure (the test) had the subjective perception that they understood the material more. The authors hypothesize that this result comes from the unfortunate reality that learning is uncomfortable. To actually learn something is a struggle. Luckily, the study also proposes a way to deal with this issue. By providing students with a 20 minute overview of active learning at the beginning of a course and explaining what its intentions are and how successful it has been, students reported much higher level of satisfaction with the methods at the end of the class. There is a natural tendency to want to avoid the discomfort that comes with active learning methods, but if students know that they has a purpose, they are more likely to appreciate them.

I have since started to introduce active learning methods into my classes, which has revealed another reason they remain underused: It is a lot more work to effectively design active learning activities than it is to plan a traditional lecture. If anyone has any experience in implementing effective active learning into their class, please share your best tips in the comments!

What Would a Better Education System Look Like?

I wrote a post a while ago wondering whether the university system as we know it is the best way of meeting students’ needs. In that post, I argued that much of what a university does (research, sports, teaching students useless information) is irrelevant to many students’ ultimate goals (getting a good job) More recently, I have been thinking a lot about what a better education system would look like.

For a long time, I thought that online education would solve many of the problems of traditional college. In a physical university, the best professor can reach at most a few hundred students at a time. The classroom only fits so many students. But in an online class, one instructor can reach tens of thousands of students. It’s of course true that learning online is worse in many ways than physical instruction, but it’s so much cheaper. One would think that paying a couple hundred dollars to take a class from the best instructor in the world would be more valuable to at least some students than paying $50,000 a year to sit in the back of a lecture hall and fall asleep.

And yet it doesn’t seem like the massive online open course (MOOC) model has really taken off. Online education like Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy serve a somewhat valuable purpose as complements to traditional education, but so far have not taken on a larger role as a substitute. Why not? And if we can answer that question, can we use that answer to find something that could substitute. After listening to a couple old EconTalk episodes, I think I have some ideas.

Is Education Really About Education?

One of the episodes that started to convince me that online education on its own will never be enough was a conversation with John Cochrane about his experience in teaching MOOCs. Although he argues that there are many benefits, especially when used together with live instruction, he emphasizes that there are certain things that an online education can’t do:

what does the bricks-and-mortar business school do that [online education] doesn’t do? A bricks and mortar business school is selective about who they let in. In fact we are often accused at simply being really good at selecting smart people and then giving them a 2-year party. We have connections to employers. We have a fantastic office that gets them jobs. And we have an alumni network.

Although he focuses on MBA programs, these insights also carry over to 4-year undergraduate programs. Anyone can learn pretty much whatever they want online for hundreds of dollars a year rather than the tens of thousands they would spend on a university. But who would hire someone with a degree from Coursera over someone with a degree from a prestigious university? How will a student with an online education even get their foot in the door without the reputation of a well-respected institution behind them?

Once again, this discussion drives home the point that education isn’t really about education. In large part it’s about selection (people who graduate from a good school must have been smart enough to get in), signaling (someone who can get through 4 years of college with a high GPA will probably make a good worker as well, regardless of what they learned), and connections (with peers, employers, an alumni network). Very little of the value of an education is about learning.

Making Learning Useful

What I have written so far explains what our education system is, but the question I really want to answer is what our education should be. To put it another way, in the current system, learning may not be the primary goal of students, but does that imply that they don’t want to learn? Maybe students don’t learn because we aren’t very good at teaching them how.

In a different EconTalk episode, as part of a longer discussion on manufacturing and inequality, Ed Leamer does an incredible job summarizing the difference between what education is and what education should be. I recommend listening to the entire conversation, but the part that most interested me was towards the end of the conversation where Leamer asserts (I think correctly) that “a lecture room is where the lecturer pretends to teach and the students pretend to learn,” and that “internet-based [education] is good for the Xerox style of teaching where you have the students memorize exams.”

But if not traditional teaching and not online teaching, what are we left with? How can education actually be useful at providing students with real learning? Leamer answers with a story about a student who he taught as part of an independent study on the effect of Chinese trade on US manufacturing. He describes the process:

I said ‘Go to this book and it tells you some theory about this stuff and come back in a week; we’ll talk about it.’ Next week, ‘Go to this website; it has a lot of data. Find out what you can find out about China.’ So, it was a sequence of hours, 10 hours it had at the end, and it was incredible how much she learned. And that, to me, is the way we have to move, which is an experience-based education in which the faculty member is not the teacher, but the coach, and facilitates and points and suggests. And it’s a student who is actually doing the work.

And that’s really the key. Nobody learns math just by copying down equations from the board. You can’t learn programming by watching someone else code. For almost every subject I can think of, you learn by doing. The real job of a teacher is guidance and feedback, not necessarily teaching (at least in the sense we usually think of it), but helping students learn on their own.

A transition from traditional lecture style education to “experience-based” education is certainly not something that will happen quickly, but I see a couple different ways we can get there. The first way would involve keeping the university system, but changing the way professors teach. The second, more dramatic change would involve dismantling the system and starting over. I’ll have future posts discussing my ideas on each of these coming soon!