Active Learning Works But Students Don’t Like It

A carefully done study that held students and teachers constant shows that students learn more in active learning classes but they dislike this style of class and think they learn less. It’s no big surprise–active learning is hard and makes the students feel stupid. It’s much easier to sit back and be entertained by a great lecturer who makes everything seem simple.

Despite active learning being recognized as a superior method of instruction in the classroom, a major recent survey found that most college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods. This article addresses the long-standing question of why students and faculty remain resistant to active learning. Comparing passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials, we find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning. Faculty who adopt active learning are encouraged to intervene and address this misperception, and we describe a successful example of such an intervention.

The authors say that it can help to tell students in advance that they should expect to feel flustered but it will all work out in the end.

The success of active learning will be greatly enhanced if students accept that it leads to deeper learning—and acknowledge that it may sometimes feel like exactly the opposite is true.

I am dubious that this will bring students around. An alternative that might help is to discount student evaluations so that teachers don’t feel that they must entertain in order to do well on evaluations. As Brennan and Magness point out in their excellent Cracks in the Ivory Tower:

Using student evaluations to hire, promote, tenure, or determine raises for faculty is roughly on a par with reading entrails or tea leaves to make such decisions. (Actually, reading tea leaves would be better; it’s equally bullshit but faster and cheaper.)… the most comprehensive research shows that whatever student evaluations (SETs) measure, it isn’t learning caused by the professor.

Indeed, the correlation between student evaluations and student learning is at best close to zero and at worst negative. Student evaluations measure how well liked the teacher is. Students like to be entertained. Thus, to the extent that they rely on student evaluations, universities are incentivizing teachers to teach in ways that the students like rather than in ways that promote learning.

It’s remarkable that student evaluations haven’t already been lawsuited into oblivion given that student evaluations are both useless and biased.


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