Interesting Pushback Against Incentivizing Active Learning in CS Classes

August 21, 2015 at 8:24 am 14 comments

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.”

via Be It Resolved: Teaching Statements Must Embrace Active Learning and Eschew Lecture | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Lutz  |  August 21, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Just to clarify: Were Richard Feynman alive Georgia Tech should not hire him?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 21, 2015 at 1:35 pm

      Mike, can you unpack that for me a little bit?

      I should be clear — the pushback wasn’t all from GT faculty. I have a lot of Facebook friends, and many people didn’t like my suggestion.

      Feynman (according to his biographer in “Genius”) was not an effective teacher. He relied heavily on lecture, and students didn’t understand him — and that didn’t seem to bother him all that much.

  • 3. Mike Lutz  |  August 21, 2015 at 5:25 pm


    The Feynman Lectures are deep, difficult, but illuminating forays into explaining physics to prospective and practicing physicists. While they may have been too deep for freshman, note that grad. students and colleagues filled the void because his presentations were so lucid (also from “Genius”).

    I suggest you read “QED”, which is the (edited) transcription of four lectures he gave to the general public on quantum electrodynamics. I think it a tour de force – no mathematics at all (or at least the math is hidden) and yet at the end you have a qualitative understanding of some deeply counter-intuitive quantum effects.

    This is not to say that I’m opposed to active learning – I’ve used it myself in many (but not all) of the software engineering courses I’ve taught at RIT. However, I have also attended superb lectures. One set, by a previous RIT provost whose expertise is in Shakespeare and Mark Twain, gave me much deeper understanding of his topic. No amount of pair-and-share, guided activities, or clicker responses would have been nearly effective.

    Finally, active learning must be complemented by active, knowledgeable mentoring or students can go off the rails. I remember Sally Fincher’s article in the Communications a while back where she described a poster in a 5th grade classroom that said “SCIENCE: Gravity makes heavier things fall faster.” I can easily imagine a scenario in a CS active learning environment resulting in the analog “ALGORITHMS: Bubble sort is more efficient than heap sort.”

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  August 21, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      Feynman was a genius, and his writing and lectures are brilliant. I have written here to defend lecture. But was he an effective educator? In the end, the quality of the education is measured in terms of what the students take away.

      You can’t use yourself and your personal introspection to judge what your students take away from a lecture. Sure, you got a lot out of the provost’s lecture. Would your students? They don’t have your knowledge or experience. You can be motivated to learn and learn just from listening to a lecture. The empirical evidence says that STEM undergraduates don’t learn as much from lecture. We might think, “They ought to try harder! They ought to be more motivated!” You might just as well say, “We should all use System 2 more and less System 1.” (See Kahneman blog post.) It won’t do any good. That’s just measurably, reliably the way people are.

      I’m not saying eliminate lectures. I’m saying deliberately avoid them. Of course, you have to guide, frame, and mentor. Most of the activities of learning should involve the students’ active engagement for learning.

      One of my favorite quotes on education is from Herb Simon:

      Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.

  • […] The pushback against this idea was much greater than I anticipated. I asked on Facebook if we could do this at Georgia Tech. The Dean of the College of Engineering was supportive. Other colleagues were strongly against it. I wrote a blog post about that pushback here. […]

  • […] of the pushbacks that I got in response to my proposal to encourage active learning in teaching statements for hiring, promotion, and tenure was the question, “What are you calling lecture?  What is active learning?”  The […]

  • […] Guzdial recently has been discussing the reform of teaching practices at the college level. Is a class with reformed teaching practices […]

  • […] empirical evidence for the value of active learning over lecture is strong (see previous post).  It works for humans.  Lecture probably works for Econs.  If we could find enough of them, we […]

  • […] a question that I’ve wondered about here: Why does research influence so little practice (see post here) and policy (see post here)?  Nick is taking a novel approach — he’s using the three […]

  • […] Guzdial’s call for making active learning a part of faculty teaching statements. I know that his article was controversial, but based on my own experience I have to think that at least some faculty who move to active […]

  • […] that we should change promotion and tenure requirements to encourage active learning, and received massive pushback.  I don’t think we’ll see that happen anywhere anytime soon.  Teachers don’t […]

  • […] have academic freedom,” is a common response to requests to change teaching (see my efforts to incentivize active learning) — we allow teachers teach anyway they want. It isn’t clear that still makes […]

  • […] here, but she could just as well be talking about active learning.  The stages are similar (recall the responses to my proposal to build active learning methods into hiring, promotion, and tenure pac…). These are particularly critical for computing where we have so little diversity and CS teachers […]

  • […] so happy to see this!  I’ve received significant pushback on adopting active learning among CS faculty. Maybe a White House call can convince CS higher education faculty to adopt active learning […]


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