Interesting Pushback Against Incentivizing Active Learning in CS Classes
My Blog@CACM post this month makes a concrete proposal (quoted and linked below). We (all academic computing programs) should incentivize faculty to use active learning methods by evaluating teaching statements for hiring, tenure, and promotion more highly that reference active learning and avoid lecture.
On my Facebook page, I linked to the article and tagged our Dean of Engineering, the Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education, and the RPT Chair for our College, and asked, “Can we do this at Georgia Tech?” The pushback on my Facebook page was the longest thread I’ve ever been part of on Facebook.
The issues raised were interesting and worth discussing:
- Would implementing this put at a disadvantage new PhD’s who have no teaching experience and don’t learn about active teaching? Yes, but that incentivizes those PhD programs to change.
- My blog post title is “Be It Resolved: Teaching Statements must embrace Active Learning and eschew Lecture.” I chose the word “eschew” deliberately. It doesn’t mean “ban.” It means “deliberately avoid using” which is what I meant. Lecture has its place — I wrote a blog post defending lecture which still gets viewed pretty regularly. The empirical evidence suggests that we should use active learning more than lecture for undergraduate STEM education.
- Should such a requirement for teaching statements emerge from faculty talking about it, or should it be done by administrative fiat? I lean toward the latter. As I’ve pointed out, CS faculty tend to respond to authority more than evidence. The administration should do the right thing, and deal with educating teachers (e.g., what are active learning methods first? how do we use them? even in large classes?) later. Faculty will learn the active learning methods in order to create those teaching statements. The incentive comes first.
- Lots of respondents thought I was saying that we should require all teaching to be active learning. I wasn’t, and I don’t know how to enforce that anyway. By evaluating teaching statements more heavily that emphasize active learning, we create an incentive, not a requirement.
- Some faculty pushed back, “How about students that like lecture? Tough luck for them?” Since we know that active learning is better, even for students who like lecture — yes.
- Several respondents suggested that active learning is just too hard, that faculty are over-stressed as it is. Faculty are over-stressed, but active learning isn’t that hard. In fact, it’s hard for faculty because they have to be quiet and listen in class more. It is hard to make change, but that’s the point of incentives. We start somewhere.
- The biggest theme in the thread is that we should first aim to get faculty to care about teaching and to take active steps to improve their teaching. I don’t think that’s enough. Libertarian paternalism (see Wikipedia page) suggests that we set the incentive at the minimal acceptable level (use of active learning) then encourage choice above that (choosing among the wide variety of active learning methods). We don’t want people to choose options that won’t be in the best interests of the largest number of people.
The discussion went on for four days (and hasn’t quite petered out yet). I do wonder if active learning methods will be forced upon faculty if we don’t willingly pick them up. The research evidence is overwhelming, with articles in Nature and hundreds of studies reviewed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. How long before we get sued for teaching but not using the best teaching methods? One of the quotes in the blog post says, “At this point it is unethical to teach any other way.” We should take concrete steps towards doing the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.
Here is something concrete that we in academia can do. We can change the way we select teachers for computer science and how we reward faculty.
All teaching statements for faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure should include a description of how the candidate uses active learning methods and explicitly reduces lecture.
We create the incentive to teach better. We might simply add a phrase to our job ads and promotion and tenure policies like, “Teaching statements will be more valued that describe how the candidate uses active learning methods and seeks to reduce lecture.”