Human students need active learning and Econs learn from lecture: NYTimes Op-Ed in defense of lecture

October 30, 2015 at 8:49 am 8 comments

I’m sympathetic to the author’s argument (linked below), that being able to understand an argument delivered as a lecture is difficult and worthwhile. Her characterization of active learning is wrong — it’s not “student-led discussion.”  Actually, what she describes as good lecture is close to good active learning.  Having students answering questions in discussion is good — but some students might disengage and not answer questions.  Small group activities, peer led team learning, or peer instruction would be better to make sure that all students engage. But that’s not the critical flaw in her argument.

Being able to listen to a complicated lecture is an important skill — but students (at least in STEM, at least in the US) don’t have that skill.  We can complain about that. We can reform primary and secondary schooling so that students develop that skill.  But if we want these students to learn, the ones who are in our classes today, we should use active learning strategies.

Richard Thaler introduced the term “Econs” to describe the rational beings that inhabit traditional economic theory. (See a review of his book Misbehaving for more discussion on Econs.)  Econs are completely rational.  They develop the skills to learn from lecture because it is the most efficient way to learn.  Unfortunately, we are not econs, and our classes are filled with humans. Humans are predictably irrational, as Daniel Ariely puts it. And there’s not much we can do about it. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman complains that he knows how he is influenced by biases and too much System 1 thinking — and yet, he still makes the same mistakes.  The evidence is clear that the students in our undergraduate classes today need help to engage with and learn STEM skills and concepts.

The 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 could run an experiment.

In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.

Source: Lecture Me. Really. – The New York Times

A similar argument to mine is below.  This author doesn’t use the Humans/Econs distinction that I’m using.  Instead, the author points out that lecturers too often teach only to younger versions of themselves.

I will grant that nothing about the lecture format as Worthen describes it is inherently bad. But Worthen’s elegy to a format that bores so many students reminds me of a bad habit that too many professors have: building their teaching philosophies around younger versions of themselves, who were often more conscientious, more interested in learning, and more patient than the student staring at his phone in the back of their classrooms.

Source: Professors shouldn’t only teach to younger versions of themselve

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Professor wants to double the number of computer science teachers in Wisconsin: Color me jealous Are there some students who can’t learn how to code? Teachers must always answer “No!”

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Raul Miller  |  October 30, 2015 at 9:18 am

    On a related note (and you may know this already), markets are almost certainly not efficient (not even using the weak market efficiency hypothesis): http://arxiv.org/pdf/1002.2284.pdf

    In other words, rationally speaking economic theory is not rational.

    That seems to have some rather ironic relevance to your essay here.

    Reply
    • 2. kirkpams  |  October 30, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      More specifically, the rational utility model is a flawed basis for real-world economics because it fails to predict much of human behavior. I’m a bigger fan of prospect theory (which is the work of Kahneman and Amos Tversky) as a basis.

      Reply
  • 3. chaikens  |  November 1, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Learning from lectures is a skill that maybe many people don’t need but it is necessary for upper level study and practice in intellectual disciplines. So active learning approaches here need to include pathways to develop this skill. Of course this skill includes the habit of the listener to independently transform the lecture into an active learning experience. The traditional technique is to grade with feedback homework that requires many more hours than the lecture, and encouragement for out of class interstudent and student-instructor discussion.

    Reply
    • 4. Raul Miller  |  November 4, 2015 at 7:39 am

      Another traditional technique is to relate the lessons to examples and/or activities which the student might be interested in. Food, sports (or other games), art, housing, family, etc. on can all play roles here.

      Reply
  • […] mediated by student ability as a reader, but as a description of where students are today (like the prior posts on active learning), it’s a useful […]

    Reply
  • […] sit for 90 minutes and passively listen a recap of the lecture.  No peer instruction.  We know active learning is better, and we know that it’s even easier to do active learning in small […]

    Reply
  • […] At a deeper level, it’s amazing how easily we fool ourselves about what we learn from and what we don’t learn from.  It’s like the brain training work.  We’re convinced that we’re learning from it, even if we’re not. This student is convinced that he doesn’t learn from it, even though the available evidence says she or he does. […]

    Reply
  • […] be better designed for legally blind students. I was surprised to learn how much they dislike active learning activities in classrooms.  They said that when the whole class breaks into small group discussions, they can’t hear […]

    Reply

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