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