Active learning

December 02, 2019 12:00 am | Updated 05:39 am IST

Asking questions and eliciting solutions can help the teacher to get the students to apply themselves

Professor A is a gifted lecturer. When she speaks, her students are riveted. Her knowledge of her subject is both vast and deep. As her lectures extend beyond the content in prescribed textbooks, students assiduously write notes. While she does encourage students to ask questions, she ends up doing the bulk of the talking. Predictably, Professor A receives stellar evaluations at the end of every semester, with students reporting that they learnt a lot from the course.

In contrast, Professor B conducts his classes differently. Usually, he starts off by describing a problem. Then, he divides the class into groups of five or six, and asks them to suggest solutions. As students ponder over the problem, he moves around the room listening to snippets of conversations. Later, he reconvenes the class and asks the groups to share their ideas. At the end, Professor B discusses the pros and cons of different approaches, again inviting students to take the lead. While he too receives laudatory evaluations, there are two differences.

These variances are illustrated in a well-designed study conducted by physicist Louis Deslauriers and his colleagues at Harvard University. Students in a physics course were divided into two groups. While both groups were presented with identical content, including handouts, in the active learning condition, students had to try and solve problems in small groups before the instructor demonstrated the solution. In the passive lecture condition, the instructor demonstrated the solutions without asking the students to first solve them. Two topics were taught this way, with one group doing active learning for the first topic and the second group receiving the passive lecture format. For the second topic, the instructors swapped their styles to rule out the effect of individual instructors.

Participation pays

In addition to completing a test, students also filled out a “feeling of learning” questionnaire at the end of the course. When students were presented with content that involved passively listening to a lecture, they exhibited less learning on the subsequent test. In contrast, when they were made to learn actively by solving problems, their performance increased. However, students felt they learnt more when they were in the passive group.

Why is this so? Active learning entails students putting in cognitive effort, which, at times, can be strenuous and difficult. Students misperceive the struggle involved as a sign that they are learning less, when, in fact, evidence indicates the opposite. Students also misjudge the fluency of the professor’s lecture with their own learning. The authors argue that “novices in a subject are poor judges of their own competence.”

By asking questions, posing problems and eliciting solutions, teachers across disciplines can promote learning by getting students to apply themselves. Of course, students should also realise that great lectures don’t necessarily lead to robust learning. They need to be willing to exercise their mental faculties. Also, if teachers point out that expending cognitive energy during learning leads to a more substantial grasp of concepts, students may be more receptive to active learning.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA.

Active learning entails students putting in cognitive effort, which, at times, can be strenuous and difficult.

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