Recently, I attended a presentation on active learning given by Brian White, associate professor of biology and science education, University of Massachusetts-Boston. During his talk, White confronted head-on the fact that many students are ambivalent about—or downright hostile to—active learning. He recounted an acerbic remark made to him by a student who took particular exception to a key element of active learning: working in groups with one’s peers. “When I’m dead,” she declared to White, “I want my fellow group members to help lower my casket into the ground—just so they can let me down one more time.”
The assembled science professors laughed in rueful recognition. It was clear that many of them had encountered resistance from students in response to the introduction of active learning. (In case you’re wondering about just what “active learning” is, here’s a widely-accepted definition: “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”)
Why this negative reaction? The ensuing discussion identified several factors:
• People don’t like change. Active learning is new to many students and they prefer what is familiar. Change is especially unwelcome to students who are already anxious about grades and only want to know “what’s going to be on the test.”
• Active learning is more work. Sitting in a lecture (often while surfing the internet on one’s laptop) is easier and more pleasant than engaging in activities and discussions that require thinking about complex subjects.
• Students don’t think they need it. Research has shown again and again that people are generally poor monitors of how well they’re learning and how much they know. This is especially true of novices, which is what science students are. Students can and do walk out of a lecture feeling that they’ve “got it,” when really they don’t; hence the need for a different approach isn’t apparent to them.
• Group dynamics can be complicated and challenging. Interacting with one’s classmates—debating and defending one’s positions, revealing one’s ignorance, venturing out of one’s safety zone—is uncomfortable, and many students would prefer to work on their own.
What to do about such reactions? There was general agreement in the room that professors should explain the purpose of active learning, and present evidence behind its effectiveness, at the outset of the course. It’s a way of saying to students, in effect, “I respect your intelligence and I want you to learn, really learn, this subject that is so exciting and interesting to me.”
Here are a few resources to help professors make the case:
This post originally appeared on Annie Murphy Paul’s Brilliant Blog.