Friday, October 12, 2007

Where does active learning happen?

I’ve been scratching my head about whether my blogging is active learning, using definitions that are in common parlance nowadays. On the pro side, I do produce some new or a fresh perspective on what others are talking about by making associations between disparate ideas that are out there. This part fits in with constructivist notions of learning. But the activity is almost pure introspection, especially in the pre-writing phase. Then the activity becomes a blend of introspection, research qua Web surfing via Google (and some other sources of search), dictation to myself and modest keyboarding of that dictation, one phrase at a time, as well as some immediate editing to see if it reads back as well as it sounded the first time through and to catch obvious typos, all part of the process in what I call the composition phase.

So on the con side, it is a solitary activity without social interaction. Once in a while I will write in response to a post elsewhere by a friend or colleague and then perhaps there will be a response back to that, but more often than not I’m initiating based on what I’d call “external stimuli,” for example a New York Times article or an interview on the Charlie Rose show; and clearly I don’t have a co-author with whom I negotiate the content of a post. The lack of social interaction might disqualify it as active learning in the minds of some. Indeed, when talking about learning these days we don’t seem to talk much about introspection, reflection especially as a means of metacognition about some other learning activity, yes, but introspection as a means to initiate an idea, no. For me, blogging is a lot of that. Is it active learning? I’ll let others be the judge.

A lot of what I do in my job working on relationships with others around campus and developing new initiatives I would term active learning. The principal tools are email for asynchronous communication and then face to face conversation, either in one of our offices or more likely at a coffee place. It has the feel of an ongoing conversation rather than a one shot thing and it may very well be that we have multiple distinct but interrelated threads that we deal with in any single meeting. There are some smaller workgroups that also function this way. Larger committees don’t. In large committees, if I were doing the “whip” function I would treat members as a group of individuals and then have one-on-one interactions with each individual, which is where the active learning would happen. It is very hard to do brainstorming in the larger group absent those one-on-one interactions and the discussion will go nowhere in a hurry unless it has some direction based on prior interactions with individual members.

People do have busy schedules so sometimes a conversation doesn’t conclude within a given session. But the conversation doesn’t stop because somebody has to be somewhere else. We’ll pick it up again face to face in the not too distant future and in between there will be email aimed at furthering the ideas. With people I know reasonably well, we schedule generously to not feel rushed when we do meet and because we like these conversations. So for me, active learning occurs at the coffee place, somebody’s office, while at my computer, and if the introspection part counts too then any place I do that, which is basically anywhere and everywhere when I’m by myself.

With that as background I want to consider active learning by students in the courses they take. I have never been comfortable with that notion because it is something unlike what I described above. Often, it refers to quick hitter interactions that are a break from lecture or that are used to jump start an ensemble discussion. Often the active learning ends when the bell goes off signaling the end of class. And in many of the cases of which I’m aware these active learning activities are done as a one off. In the next class the students are paired differently. I know that most of those in the profession advocate for active learning of this type, but I think there are some pernicious consequences to the approach, mainly that a student can readily come to believe that good ideas are there for the having in short order, which in turn creates a sense of impatience in the students that learning should happen quickly (and that they need not put in a lot of time to learn a lot). Indeed, once an instructor has developed that perception in the students further accommodation of the perception requires the instructor to steer away from hard problems. The pressure to meet the perception helps to make the perception self-fulfilling.

If we want our students to engage in deep learning, it seems inescapable to me that most of the active learning has to happen outside the regularly scheduled class time, in small groups that persist for a while and which interact in a manner similar to the way in which I interact in my work, and if we agree that introspection can be a part of the process then also when the students are by themselves but focusing on the issues at hand. We are now many years into supporting our approach to active learning, both on my campus and in the profession at large, but on this basic point we still haven’t reached agreement that active learning should happen this way, at least when considering active learning in the setting of regularly scheduled courses.

And it seems to me that the reasons why we have no such agreement is that the instructor can readily observe what happens during the scheduled class session but can at best only infer what happens outside of class and then make only very coarse inferences, which are based on the work that students produce and often that work itself is only measured by how students do on exams.

Much current criticism of the lecture is based on considering that in isolation, instead of viewing the lecture in conjunction with the work that students do in study groups, which is where the active learning is apt to occur. It certainly seems at least possible, and I believe my first year in graduate school functioned much this way, that the in-classroom lecture during the day serve as fodder for the introspection and the study group interaction that happens mostly in the evening. When I was in grad school the study groups formed as a grass roots thing because many of the students needed it as a survival mechanism in the classes and the rest of us who could have done ok with just the introspection wanted to hang around with our classmates for social reasons.

Let us all agree that lectures that don’t engender active learning outside of class (and while I’ve not looked at the recent results, the NSSE from a few years back indicated that at many public universities we have quite a few classes of this sort) are quite likely ineffective. But what of those that do? In other words, what if lecture is accompanied by rather serious work for the students to complete out of class, with the lecture at least in part an instrument to help the students complete the work? Does that mechanism provide for effective learning or not? If not, does the study group approach fail because group activities are structured by the students themselves rather than by the instructor and hence the students apply themselves in a manner that is not efficient to promote their own learning?

I’ve not actually seen anyone argue on this point. Rather it seems the gospel that lectures are bad pure and simple and that active learning should happen in the classroom and only in the classroom. So I find myself at odds with much of the profession, because as I said that doesn’t make sense to me.

I could readily believe an argument that said some active learning in the class is necessary because students need to learn to scaffold their arguments and discussions in a way the produces results, not gridlock. But surely we shouldn’t be under the impression that the in class work is sufficient in itself. Look at Chickering and Ehrmann’s Seven Principles. They do make sense to me. But I believe it is possible to implement them all while still having some substantial amount of lecture face to face.


LisaLibrarian said...

It's been quite some time since you and I discussed the Learning Commons initiative in the Undergraduate Library but what you say here really resonates with me for part of what I think a library can offer a campus. But, the question is also then - what set of services, resources, and spaces best encourage outside of classroom active learning. We know how to encourage and support a type of active learning - individual, quiet study. We in libraries are still figuring out how to encourage and support other kinds. I wish I had a full-time evaluator (or even part-time) to study the outcomes of the things we are trying. We do have our observations though and - interestingly - at this point I'd put my votes on laptop checkout and access to whiteboards as two of the most valuable things we have implemented. Whiteboards in particular since - while students may have a laptop - none of them own a 4' x 6' white board that they carry around with them! It thrills me to walk about the Undergrad and see students using the whiteboards so intensively.

Lanny Arvan said...


Either that post was more transparent than most or you know me too well. I'm attending a pre-conference workshop on Learning Space Design at Educause and to get ready for that session they have us reading several chapters from the Educause book on Learning Spaces. I wrote this post as a "getting ready" activity for me after reading the chapter by Malcolm Brown and Phillip Long. We are also supposed to read the chapter by Joan Lippincott on Learning Commons.

I struggle with this stuff, as may be evident from the post, because of the difficulty in trying to reconcile what I read with my own experience, because of the many different dimensions there are to think about these questions, and whether one can do so in a coherent whole. And, of course, given the new Business Instructional Facility is due to open next summer, I'm thinking both about the classrooms and the common spaces in the new building.

Here are just a few of the questions I'm thinking about.

Student Flow - do students go from classrooms to informal learning spaces and back again and so should our space really try to encourage that? Or is the classroom work and the group work outside of class temporally separated (day versus night) so we should consider the spaces separately?

TA Office Hours - We don't have TA office space in the new building and indeed TA office space will remain a scarce commodity. Should we change the practice and encourage TAs to meet students in the common spaces, or does that violate FERPA? Are office hours part of a student's active learning?

Cleanliness versus use It is unfortunate but students have a reputation for trashing the facilities where they work. We are talking about cordoning off the graduate professional classroom space because we'd like to keep those spaces pristine looking. Actually we want the whole building to look sharp to make a good impression on members of the community and visitors alike. But we also want to serve the students. Is there a way to get both?

How much should we spend on this? Your comments can be interpreted as making a "bang for the buck" argument, especially the point about the whiteboards. Much of the reading talks about learning issues without any consideration of cost or incremental benefit. But in many of my conversations on the job, resources are a key part of the conversation and people who are focusing on bigger picture things want arguments in a bang for the buck manner.

BTW, we are supposed to have some sort of Food place in the Atrium in the new building. You talked about evaluation. I wonder if the type of conversations that happen at the Espresso just outside the Undergrad Library are different from what happens within the Library. Hmmm.

LisaLibrarian said...

Since we allow covered beverages in the Undergrad, I suspect the difference in conversations at Espresso vs inside the library aren't all that different for the students. We don't see many faculty groups working together inside Undergrad though so those groups at Espresso are probably unique! :)

We put whiteboards in the tunnel too - those aren't used so much. That tells me it is both the tool (having the whiteboard) as well as the environment that matters.

I think spaces don't have to get trashed just because students use them. But, in most cases on campus it seems we don't have enough cleaning services, vacuuming, etc. for spaces that get heavy use. Certainly students are hard on a space but good choices in fabrics, flooring, etc. plus maintenance can keep things in good shape. But, do we have the budgets for maintenance?

I have a million thoughts on these topics. We should have coffee and talk about this preconference!


Lanny Arvan said...

One other dimension of this is the time of day thing. During the daytime some students may go to UGL as a place to hang out between classes. During the evening, they almost certainly go there as their main destination.

These behaviors might be quite different for students in these categories
(1) Campus Housing
(2) Private Housing but walking distance
(3) Commute

It would be interesting to break usage up by that demographic. As a grad student at Northwestern in category (3), I hung out at both the Library and the Union, but they were right next to each other.

LisaLibrarian said...

One way into this might be by comparing different patterns of activity - e.g., when the laptops are checked out vs. books vs. media vs reserve items, etc. It wouldn't be perfect but the patterns might be interesting... need that evaluator! :)

Norma said...

You very well describe how you inform yourself and learn about different issues as you work on them and try to find solutions or alternatives to make things happen. In this process of informal learning you engage your previous experiences in learning, your intuition and your skills to gather information and come to informed conclusions. Your conclusions come not only from your individual construction of knowledge, but also from the social interaction with others who contribute or influence your learning, as well as from the rewards that you perceive when you have learned and applied your learning. You were trained to do this and, in my view, this is what should be one of our goals when we teach: help our students know how to look for, find, select information, analyze and discuss with others and come to their conclusions, without ignoring the context where they are producing this knowledge. That is what, I believe, starts active learners and then active learning stays for life. You wonder if “the lecture at least in part is an instrument to help the students complete the work”. I think it is and it should not be important if learning is triggered by a lecture, the reading of a blog, a poster on the bus, or a discussion on TV. It is important that they are motivated to know more and engaged in their own learning, and -if not thrilled by a particular topic- at least that as they do a search for knowledge to get the answers for an assignment, they get skills for self learning and collaboration. I also think that it important that they find the results of their learning rewarding, in different terms: self confidence, self respect, achievement, approval, or a good grade (I guess that matches with achievement?) Neither a textbook, blog, wiki, podcast or any other element will promote successful active learning unless the motivation to look for or produce the information is there.
Finally to your mention of the design of spaces, yes it is important to have a good place for lecturing, and for group discussions, but it is also important to acknowledge that the convergence of media will make it possible for students to become engaged inside and outside the classroom. So, adding the easy access to online resources is also important in the design of spaces for learning.
I liked your post, good topic.

Lanny Arvan said...

Norma - thanks for the generous remarks. Everything you say about my learning is true except for one thing. I was never trained to learn in these ways, at least not trained by somebody else. But somehow I did figure this out and not everyone else does. I'm not sure why.

As I told Lisa, I wrote this to get ready for the Educause conference and a session on learning spaces I will attend. I do agree with your point about the learning possibly happening anywhere and everywhere, but I also think that if we like each other and expect to learn from each other then we want to do some of that face to face.