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!

How I’m Voting California Ballot Propositions

voting_united_statesCalifornia has 17 new propositions up for vote on the ballot next week (the link has longer descriptions as well as arguments for each one). I had to do some research to figure out how I’m going to vote on each one anyway, so I figured I’d write down some thoughts here as well. In general my instinct is to reject unless given a good argument to accept, so we’ll see if any of them can convince me. I spent approximately 5 minutes deciding on each, so this analysis probably isn’t the deepest. Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any good arguments on either side.

Proposition 51: Public School Facility Bonds

What it Does: Allows $9 billion in new borrowing to be used to improve education in California

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: California may be doing better in terms of budget these days, but debt levels are still not so good. Even Gov. Jerry Brown says no. Maybe if the money was going to a good cause it would be worth taking on more debt. But it’s going to education:


The $3 billion allocated to “modernization of school facilities” is particularly concerning. The school system has problems. More money is not the answer.

Proposition 52: Continued Hospital Fee Revenue Dedicated to Medi-Cal Unless Voters Approve Changes

What it Does: I’m not entirely sure. Apparently there is a fee paid by hospitals that goes to MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid). This proposition would continue that fee and would only allow it to change if voters agreed. A no would allow legislators to change it and potentially divert funds away from MediCal to the general fund

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: It looks to me that either way the money is going to be spent. If I understand correctly, a yes vote makes sure it is spent on healthcare for the poor rather than whatever politicians think is important. That seems better to me.

Proposition 53: Voter Approval Requirement for Revenue Bonds above $2 Billion

What it Does: Requires any infrastructure project that requires more than $2 billion in funding through bonds to be approved by voters first

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: Supporters refer to it as the “No Blank Checks Initiative.” Sounds good to me.

Proposition 54: Public Display of Legislative Bills Prior to Vote

What it Does: Requires laws to be posted online for 72 hours prior to a vote by the legislature

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: The opposition says “Prop 54 will throw a monkey wrench into the ability of our elected officials to get things done.” I thought they were trying to convince me to vote no. But seriously, increasing transparency in legislation is a welcome change.

Proposition 55: Extension of the Proposition 30 Income Tax Increase

What it Does: Extends a tax increase on incomes over $250,000 passed in 2012 for 12 more years

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: How about a tax decrease?

Proposition 56: Tobacco Tax Increase

What it Does: Increases taxes on cigarettes by $2.00 per pack

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: Current taxes are 87 cents per pack so we’re looking at a 230% increase. Here’s what the first study that comes up when you google “Do cigarette taxes work?” says about cigarette taxes: “Estimates indicate that, for adults, the association between cigarette taxes and either smoking participation or smoking intensity is negative, small and not usually statistically significant.” I’m already opposed to higher taxes in principle. Taxes that hit the poor the hardest and are allocated to specific government programs which are sure to be highly inefficient are even less appealing. I’m all for reducing smoking. The government isn’t the one that should be leading the charge. (Also perhaps most importantly I need my roommate to be able to pay his rent.)

Proposition 57: Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements

What it Does: Increases parole opportunities for non-violent criminals and allows judges to decide whether to try juveniles as adults

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: Seems like a no brainer. We put way too many people in jail. The opposing argument makes some scary claims that this is going to put rapists back onto the streets. I don’t buy it.

Proposition 58: Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education

What it Does: Repeals a previous proposition that required English to be used in all classrooms and non-English speakers to take an intensive English training class

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: Would it be better if all students knew English? Maybe. But the reality is they don’t. If I’m a science teacher and I can teach my Spanish speaking students in their native language better than in English I should be allowed to do so. Get politicians out of the classroom and let teachers make the decisions.

Proposition 59: Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Question

What it Does: Nothing as far as I can see. It will “Call on California’s elected officials to work on overturning Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other similar judicial precedents…Proposition 59 would not legally require officials to act as the measure advises them to”

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: What? This should not be on the ballot. It’s a poll not a law.

Proposition 60: Condoms in Pornographic Films

What it Does: Ahem, just read for yourself (Don’t worry, link is safe for work, just a description of the proposition)

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: No comment, except maybe they should have waited 9 more propositions before proposing this one (sorry)

Proposition 61: Drug Price Standards

What it Does: Regulates drug prices to ensure state agencies pay no more than the Department of Veteran Affairs

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: I think we should move closer to a free market in healthcare. This proposition moves us further away. Is this analysis too simple? Maybe, but unless there’s a crystal clear argument in support, I’m not voting for price controls in any situation.

Proposition 62: Repeal of the Death Penalty

What it Does: Self-explanatory

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: I don’t feel comfortable deciding whether another human being deserves to live or not. That’s already enough for a yes, but then I read the support argument and found out there’s been 13 executions since 1978, but they cost $5 BILLION?! and that “a death row sentence costs 18 times more than life in prison.” I can’t imagine why, but it makes my decision that much easier. Also, remember that even for the most heinous crimes, it’s not their fault.

Proposition 63: Background Checks for Ammunition Purchases and Large-Capacity Ammunition Magazine Ban

What it Does: Self-explanatory

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of increasing the difficulty of getting a gun, but this just seems like putting another layer of red tape on top of the red tape that’s already there

Proposition 64: Marijuana Legalization

What it Does: Legalizes marijuana for recreational use for adults over 21

How I’m Voting: Yes

Reasoning: The drug war costs a ton and puts a bunch of people in jail for doing something that doesn’t harm anyone. Marijuana is safer than alcohol. Anyone that wants it can already get it with ease (if anything, legalization might make it more difficult for minors to get it although probably effect would be small). Easy vote for me.

Proposition 65: Dedication of Revenue from Disposable Bag Sales to Wildlife Conservation Fund

What it Does: Diverts all funds from the sale of bags to the Wildlife Conservation Fund. Currently stores are allowed to keep them I believe.

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: I wish I could just eliminate the fee altogether, but I definitely don’t want to turn it into a tax.

Proposition 66: Death Penalty Procedures

What it Does: Reforms death penalty legal procedures, shortening time legal challenges can take to 5 years

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: Let’s just repeal. If this gets more yes votes than 62 it supersedes it. I much prefer 62.

Proposition 67: Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum

What it Does: Bans plastic bags

How I’m Voting: No

Reasoning: I like plastic bags