Why Students Don’t Like Active Learning: Stop making me work at learning!

July 11, 2016 at 7:27 am 7 comments

I enjoy reading Annie Murphy Paul’s essays, and this one particularly struck home because I just got my student opinion surveys from last semester.  I use active learning methods in my Media Computation class every day, where I require students to work with one another. One student wrote:

“I didn’t like how he forced us to interact with each other. I don’t think that is the best way for me to learn, but it was forced upon me.”

It’s true. I am a Peer Instruction bully.

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.

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.”

Source: Why Students Don’t Like Active Learning « Annie Murphy Paul

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thinkingwiththings  |  July 11, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Of course I agree, but I do need to add a caveat. I have an increasing number of students in my class who are on the autism spectrum and who may be very uncomfortable interacting socially, especially in a mode not of their choosing. (And I’m NOT a computer science professor!) There are also the garden-variety “shy” students we’ve always had. This is not a reason to back off on the classroom interaction, because most students do tell me they value it highly, but it’s a call to be sensitive to individual differences in the classroom. It could be that this student is not unaware of how people learn, but does know how he learns–and that he shuts down in social situations. It’s challenging to teach to a heterogeneous classroom, but important to try, as I am sure you know.

  • 2. Bonnie  |  July 11, 2016 at 11:05 am

    I teach a software engineering course, which by its nature is very hands on and collaborative. The code is posted on GitHub so everything is in the open. I always have students who completely freeze. They usually don’t want to talk about it, but one time when I was meeting with a student who had not put any code into the repository in weeks, I pressed him a bit, and he told me he was too embarrased about his weak programming skills and he didn’t want the other students to see how bad he was at programming. I realized suddenly that this was probably the reason that many of these students did not submit code and wouldn’t talk about it. They just shut down. I think we may not realize how utterly petrifying group projects can be for the weakest students.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  July 11, 2016 at 11:34 am

      Completely agreed, Bonnie. When I studied collaboration in engineering education (see blog post here), “learned helplessness” was one of the most common reasons for not collaborating. As one student put it, “I already know that I’m wrong. Why share it on-line?”

      • 4. hobbular  |  July 11, 2016 at 11:46 pm

        This is an excellent point – I wonder if there’s a productive way to integrate anonymity into online collaborations, so that students can feel free to make guesses and be wrong without their classmates judging them.

        • 5. Kathi Fisler  |  July 12, 2016 at 6:29 am

          I have been using anonymous peer review in part to help students of all performance levels engage in discussion of course material. I have students review different kinds of artifacts (typically test suites, sometimes code, sometimes design documents); usually, even the weakest students find things they can comment on with a varied set of artifacts. When I started, I also read some literature that suggested that weaker students still participate in peer review, they just emphasize different issues than the A-level students.

          I also tell students how we use peer reviews as part of grading. If a student botches an issue on an assignment, we will look at the reviews they wrote to see if they discussed/caught that issue in giving feedback to others. I intend this to incentivize students to take this seriously, and to see commenting as a different medium through which to demonstrate understanding of material.

          (When I’ve discussed peer review with Mark in the past, he raises concerns about inappropriate/Slashdot-like comments between students. I personally haven’t witnessed this–our review software lets students flag received feedback as inappropriate and the staff skim reviews for such problems. We tell the students that their reviews are at least lightly graded, and while they are anonymous to each other they are not anonymous to the staff. I’ve used peer review in classes for sophomores through grad students)

  • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 11, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    There is a huge difference between “activities” and “discussion in class”—doing something and talking about it have quite different effects, and far too much of “active learning” is just talking, rather than doing. Students learn by doing (sometimes in groups, sometimes individually) and talking in groups is no substitute for doing.

    In my applied electronics course, I have students pair up to work (like pair programming, but for electronics), but I make them change partners every week. This has the advantage that freeloaders don’t keep holding back someone who is too polite to tell them to take a hike and students learn to work with a variety of different partners. (They also often find people they work well with, which can help later on with senior projects.)

    The paired work is required by the lab capacity, but it has some pedagogic advantages also.

    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  July 11, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      My bet is that doing > talking >> sitting passively


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