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, 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!

Why College?

The value of a college education is clear. People who attend college earn a significant wage premium over those with only a high school degree as the time spent in college supposedly teaches valuable skills that will transfer to the workplace. Increasingly, many have argued that everybody should attend college, that college is a fundamental human right as well as an investment in the future. A more educated society will also be a more productive, more innovative, and more balanced one.

I disagree. I’ve spent almost my entire life in the education system and my perspective on the value of education does not follow this standard view at all. It’s not that I think education has nothing to offer. I’ve been able to teach introductory and intermediate macroeconomics over the last couple years and it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve spent years learning and thinking about macroeconomics and being able to share that with new students is something I would never want to give up. The education system has worked great for me. It probably works great for anyone whose goal is to learn or share information and ideas. But I’m not sure it works so well for people who just want a better job.

Economics teaches that increasing competition in a market tends to drive down prices. In recent years, the internet has introduced a flood of competitors for the traditional education system. A student in 1950 who wanted to learn linear algebra or differential equations had relatively few options. Today, they can take an entire course on Khan Academy or Coursera for free. Google almost any question and some resource will appear to help answer it. Wikipedia alone has as much information as any college library. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez want free education for all. It’s already available. And yet despite the rise of these potential competitors to physical universities, the price of attending college has skyrocketed instead of fallen.

There’s a few explanations for why internet alternatives for education have not decreased the cost of traditional education. One is that traditional education is just so much better than trying to learn from an online course that it is still worth paying more to actually go to college. And there’s certainly some truth to this point, even if it’s only because of the increase in commitment that comes from a teacher, exams and GPA driving you. But is it $50,000 a year better? In my own experience, which includes many hours spent on Khan Academy because the actual professors can’t teach, absolutely not.

A more plausible explanation is that traditional colleges and online learning are not actually competitors at all. There’s one thing that Khan academy can never offer that Harvard can – a Harvard diploma. And it’s the diploma that employers care about. Bryan Caplan has convincingly argued that the benefit of a college education is mostly signaling. The skills you learn in college aren’t really what employers are after, but learning those skills shows you are a person who is capable and intelligent. Even as somebody who still uses much of what I learned in college economics and math classes, I still took a bunch of classes that were essentially useless. Can’t we come up with a better way of signaling these traits that doesn’t involve spending years of our lives listening to professors drone on about topics we don’t really care about or have any use for?

Modern universities have become a strange amalgamation of different features. On the academic side are professors who care mostly about their own research teaching students who care mostly about grades. But colleges also serve as quasi hotels complete with state of the art gyms and world class dining facilities. Some schools even seem to be more about glorification of their football or basketball teams than anything else (why athletics and school should be smushed together I will never understand). And on top of everything is the idea that all of this is somehow supposed to prepare students to work. Why?

Instead of college, what if people simply paid to be trained by employers in their desired fields? Would Google turn down a proposal for an aspiring programmer to work for them for a year for $10,000 (paid to Google not by Google). People who are already upset by unpaid internships might be horrified by the thought of negative internships, but why is paying to get a year of real world work experience worse than paying even more to go to college? A liberal arts education can still be valuable for a lot of people. Maybe it’s worth paying $50,000 a year for the knowledge and discourse that comes with the college experience. That option can still exist for those who want it. But for those who don’t, they should be able to get only the skills they need and move on.

The other important parts of college life can still remain as well. It would be easy to set up communities for young people to live together. College sports are big enough on their own to survive without the academic component. And there are plenty of ways for new workers to signal their worth to future employees. I’m not sure how we got in this equilibrium of college being the only ticket to a well-paying job, but I think it’s time to find a way out of it.

One Year of the Pretense of Knowledge My favorite posts of the year

Exactly one year ago I published my first post on this blog. 64 posts later I’m very pleased that I have been able to keep it up this long and still have the motivation to write more. I have enjoyed having an outlet to express my ideas and I hope some of you have enjoyed reading them. In honor of the first anniversary, I thought I would highlight my top 5 favorite posts from the past year.


5. Why Do We Love Football?

The award for the most fun I’ve had writing a post on this blog probably goes to this post on football. Is there some hyperbole? Well, maybe just a bit, but I still stand by my comparison of Tom Brady and Mozart.

4. Kevin Malone Economics

My most read post of the last year thanks to retweets by Noah Smith and Steve Keen. Roger Farmer wasn’t too pleased with it, but Steve Keen seemed to like it. I think it provides a pretty good argument for why DSGE models should not be the only option for macroeconomic research.

3. About that Productivity Gap

A relatively short post, but I think it’s also one of the most interesting. If you’ve seen graphs showing a growing gap between worker compensation and productivity, please read this post before you start coming up with crazy stories about exploitation of workers.

2. It’s Not Your Fault

This post on why I don’t believe in free will was one of my first, but I still think it is one of my best written.

1. Why I’m a Libertarian

Libertarians perhaps unfairly often get lumped in with a republican party that is an absolute mess right now. A recent book alleges libertarians are just conspirators trying to overthrow democracy for the benefit of the wealthy elite. I think it’s fair to say that the reputation of libertarians is not exactly at a high point. Hopefully this post shows that that characterization is misplaced. Libertarians have many of the same goals as progressives and conservatives. We all want the world to be a better place, we just have very different ideas on how to get there.

Bonus: What’s Wrong With Modern Macro?

You’d have to be a bit of a masochist to make it through this riveting 15 part series on the problems with modern macro, but I can’t finish this post without at least mentioning it.


I expect my pace of blogging will be a bit slower in year 2 as I need to ramp up my actual research efforts (which I may also tie in to some future posts), but I definitely plan to continue writing as much as I can. Thanks to anybody who has read and commented so far. I hope you’ll stick around for another year.