Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen

If the social media response I have observed is any indication, then it is fair to say that Professor Molly Worthen’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times (“Lecture Me. Really.”) has been a bit polarizing among college instructors.  In brief, Worthen valorizes the lecture as the engine for student learning in humanities courses (particularly those at the introductory level) at the expense of what she terms “[t]oday’s vogue for active learning.”  Some readers have loved it and see in it a reflection of their own practices, while others–to put it mildly–feel less amenable to it and see in it a regretful look backward at the pedagogical days of yore.  As both a fellow humanist and someone who is ensconced in the scholarship of teaching and learning on a daily basis, I too had a visceral reaction to the piece, but I want to try and remain as objective as possible.  Rather than highlight my initial response, I want to call attention to the fallacies in Worthen’s argument and to the damage such “either/or” pieces can do to the discourse regarding higher education, particularly when they are published in extremely visible outlets like the NYT.

To begin with, I want to be absolutely clear: I don’t have any problem with lecturing as one tool among many that we can use to help our students learn.  It can be a very valuable strategy in certain instances.  After all, storytelling is the world’s oldest form of teaching, so there are times when a well-delivered lecture can be as powerful as anything else we do in the classroom.  The key is we have to keep them short, and we also need to use other teaching methods as well, because the research simply does not support the notion that courses dominated by lecture will be effective for student learning.  Derek Bruff, Director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, has recently written a phenomenal piece about the research on lecturing, so I won’t retread the same ground, but I do want to note from the outset that lectures should not be dismissed out of hand.

Worthen, on the other hand, clearly does not feel the same way about active learning. She not only dismisses discussion, group work, and other forms of pedagogy, but does so with derision.  As a result, she ignores decades worth of research and relies almost exclusively on anecdote.  It’s hard to build a case that way.  In what follows, I want to get to the bottom of all of the assumptions that underpin Worthen’s piece by closely reading passages from the essay itself, which I’ve placed in bold font.

“A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with ‘active learning’ methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that ‘it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.’ ”

Calling the Freeman, et. al., report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “a 2014 study” is akin to looking at a highly influential book (choose your favorite!) and calling it a pretty decent piece of work that changed a few minds.  This PNAS article was a bombshell meta-analysis of 225 different studies that didn’t merely suggest lecturing was less effective than a combination of active learning strategies; indeed, for many it definitively proved that this was so.  Yes, as a part of the wealth of data on grades and test scores, it began to reframe teaching as an ethical issue, going as far as to say, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  Those are very strong words by well-respected scientists, and they cannot be brushed off by mere hypotheses.  As a humanist, I can easily see that these findings are generalizable to my own discipline.

The biggest resistance I often see when I talk to people about the PNAS findings and  similar studies is the class-size argument.  Many, especially in the humanities, will argue that once the class gets too large, it is difficult to do anything other than lecture.  But discussion is possible regardless of how many students we have. When we get up to a certain number (say, 40 and beyond), though, it has to morph into small group discussion. This approach can be very effective, but there need to be clear guidelines, good questions, and the groups need to share their findings.

“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.”

I don’t resent experts.  I know lots of experts.  On my good days, I even like to think I bring a bit of expertise into my own classroom.  Here is the crux of Worthen’s argument, though.  She seems to think that it is enough to be an expert in a discipline, that students should somehow feel grateful to sit in our classrooms and bask in the glory of our knowledge.  Somehow–perhaps through note-taking (see below), perhaps by chance, perhaps by osmosis, perhaps by magic–students will absorb this knowledge and immediately understand how to make complex arguments and to think like scholars in the discipline.  The trouble is that learning doesn’t work this way.  The human brain does not work this way.  In order to build knowledge, students need to be active participants in creating it.  For the humanities, this can mean discussions, debates, in-class writing, course projects, etc. There is a whole field of inquiry called constructivism that has been demonstrating this for decades.  But you don’t have to believe me.  Just ask your students what their most meaningful educational experience has been.  I’ll bet a lecture is not at the top of the list.

None of this is to downplay the importance of expertise, which is an essential part of being a college educator.  However, by being so adamant in suggesting that lecturing and active learning are polar opposites, pitting one against the other, Worthen feeds right into the ill-founded criticisms of higher education that have been dominating the press.  A refusal to change in the face of a proliferation of research or, at the very least, to add other strategies to the mix only serves to bolster our critics.

“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.”

Who on earth is trying to assimilate all of these disciplines?  That’s almost literally impossible, and it strikes me as an argument more rooted in the crisis narrative surrounding the humanities than anything else.  Plus, what’s wrong with the sciences?!? They have found a way to demonstrate that students are achieving the learning goals that faculty are establishing.  Perhaps instead of being antagonistic, we could be more open to seeing how we could adapt similar strategies to our goals in the humanities.

“And it (i.e. the lecture) teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize.”

This assumes that we could ever be certain that all students were paying close attention, a point to which I’ll return below.  If we cannot be certain of this, Worthen’s argument begins to fall in on itself.

“Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article.”

There is no getting around it:  this statement is snarky, condescending, elitist, and derives from a privileged position within the academy.  Clearly, those of us who advocate strongly for more diversity among the pedagogical methods by which we teach the humanities just “do not understand what a lecture is.”  Trust me:  as a student, I have sat in plenty of lecture courses, and I’ve been to countless professional conferences, where–in the humanities–the lecture reigns supreme.  Yes, I know what a lecture is, but I choose to put my faith in the following rather than disproven notions of teaching or the echo chamber that can result from circling the wagons within our disciplines:  1) the research, and 2) the demonstrable gains in student learning seen by my colleagues who have implemented active learning methods in their courses.  Part of me also thinks Worthen is telling us that if we don’t have a similar educational background to her, then we just don’t know what a good lecture really is, so of course we would choose another mode of teaching.  Well, I won’t dignify that kind of ad hominem rhetoric with a response, except to say that I’m proud of my graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut (Go Huskies!), where–among other things–I was trained to be an effective teacher and to read research on teaching and learning.

“Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.”

I actually agree with Worthen that all of this is hard work.  But is a lecture really our most effective tool for helping students with argumentation, synthesis, and organization?  Are we to presume students are able to do all of these things on their own simply by listening (not even reading, but listening) to a model argument?  Even if we assume that the argument being presented in the lecture is of the caliber that it will revolutionize the field, it is a stretch to believe that students can take what they are hearing and apply the methods to their own work simply by taking notes if they haven’t been given any opportunity to practice through other means.  If it is happening for some students, how do we prove it?  Worthen is dismissing active learning in favor of lecturing on the basis of a hunch about what might be happening in her students’ minds.  Mark Sample makes a similar point in a comment on the Derek Bruff post I discussed above, and it is a vital one to consider.  There are no data to back the notion that this kind of learning is actually taking place, largely because such a claim would be difficult to ever verify.

“Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. “

I confess that the word “suggests” here really bothers me.  The research doesn’t just suggest that lecturing is less effective for these populations of students. The research is, in fact, pretty clear.  Here is a great example of a study on the ways in which lecturing is detrimental to underrepresented students and women.   Also, here is Adam Newman‘s brilliant Storify on the limitations of using lectures to teach students with disabilities.  On this latter point, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that universal design for learning has been around for a very long time, and its framework fully supports everything Adam says in his Twitter essay.

There also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding here about the way learning works.  If a student is struggling with something–say a concept or a pedagogical strategy like lecturing–simply doing that thing over and over and over again will not necessarily help him or her to learn it better.  Plainly put:  different students need different strategies in order to learn most effectively.  If we approach education with a one-size-fits-all model, we are sure to fail our students.

“Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.”

Again, I agree with the premise here.  I assume Professor Worthen is training her students how to take notes productively and to build attention while giving them opportunities to practice, because–otherwise–how can we be sure the strategies they are using are effective?

“Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes.”

If I had to write a script and rehearse lines before walking into the classroom, I would be an unhappy fellow.  What is so beautiful about the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, and all of the other fields under the umbrella of the humanities is the serendipity of discovery, when (through discussion or other activities) students and instructor together find a new way of seeing something.  Following the path Professor Worthen has laid out for us–practicing like actors awaiting their cue–shuts off the possibility for what makes education so meaningful to begin with.  This approach, of course, also focuses on the nature of our “performance” at the front of the classroom, rather than student learning.

“I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think the point of teaching is to get our heart rates up and to improve our resting pulse. Rather than an aerobic workout, shouldn’t we be focused on getting people to learn things?

I think it’s important to note that Worthen mentions asking questions here.  I want to know more about the kinds of questions she’s asking.  I’d like to think they are deeply analytical questions that require students to engage with the material and that spark debate.  Due to the rose-colored glasses I wear, I choose to believe that they are.

“Such words of caution are deeply unfashionable. But humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time.”

First, Worthen seems to be assuming that all humanists feel the same way about new modes of teaching–that we all pull out the garlic and scream in terror at the suggestion that we might consider changing.  This is hardly the case.  But again, why take such pains to further expand the gulf that has been created between the humanities and the STEM fields?  Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, we could all learn from each other.

“Such a student learns ‘when to speak and when to be silent,’ Newman wrote. ‘He is able to converse, he is able to listen.’ “

We have heard much from Worthen about the silence and the listening, but I would like to hear more about the speaking and the conversing. What role do these play in her classes?  They are, after all, elements of active learning.

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I’d like to close with an anecdote of my own. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to observe Dennis Huston, a professor of English and one of Rice’s legendary teachers, for the book I am currently writing.  Dennis has won every teaching award our university offers, along with many national awards too, including the highly regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S Professor of the Year Award.  I was observing a Shakespeare course (and, yes, I have his permission to write about what I saw).  Certainly there was a fair amount of what Worthen would probably consider to be lecturing, though it came closer to an expert glossing of and commentary on the text, but he also was masterful about incorporating discussion.  When a student would respond to a question, he focused intently, kindly, on each person who was speaking, often walking right up to where they were sitting in the room. He would listen and then push further.  I must have heard him ask “Why?” dozens of times as he helped each student move beyond the surface to a more nuanced interpretation.  For Dennis, each student, each speaker, is the most important in the room while they contribute, and then they are all a team working to put together their own understanding of the text. To be sure, that interpretation may have existed before, many may have written about the same aspects of the play, but for these students, in this place, at that time, it was brand new—a thing that lived for each of them. For such a thing to happen in the humanities, we must first admit that we are not the most important people in the room (notice that I’m not dispensing with our expertise as faculty), and then we must acknowledge that learning trumps the delivery of our knowledge every single time.

What’s Happening with the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award?

The other day I went to the homepage for the well-known and highly-regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award to see if there had been any updates regarding this year’s winners yet.  Rice has some nominees in the mix, and I was a little curious.  I didn’t find any information regarding victors, but I did find an ominous statement greeting me when the website loaded:

The U.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program will go on hiatus, beginning in January 2016, as part of a year-long strategic planning process that the Council for Advancement and Support of Education launched in July 2015. Therefore, there will not be a call for nominations in January.

The full statement explaining the hiatus outlines the decision-making process in more detail.

Say what you will about the politics of awards and the ways in which the processes for all kinds of awards can sometimes seem arbitrary, but the CASE/Carnegie program has been extremely important for higher education.  To often the narratives about our profession, and the accolades given within it, are dominated by research.  The U.S. Professor of the Year program has always served to shine a bright, and highly respected, light onto teaching.  By separating candidates into four categories (by type of institution), the program leveled the playing field a bit as well in a way that underscores the kinds of phenomenal teaching that happen across the board in our institutions of higher ed.

All this is to say that I hope this is really a hiatus, and not a discontinuing, of the program.  Higher ed. cannot afford to lose it.