How much active learning is enough?

By Gregor Kiczales posted on November 26th, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I went to a parents’ information session at our kid’s school. When I walked into the room it was set up with round tables, half a dozen chairs at each table, and worksheets. The ‘speaker’ then announced that instead of her explaining to us how our kid’s lessons work, we were going to spend the evening working in groups to discover that by designing a lesson plan.

I wasn’t the only person who was disappointed. What I wanted was for her to explain it to me. She is an expert in IB lesson design, I am not. I wanted to hear what she had to say and then ask questions.

Talking to other friends and colleagues since then many people have told me that they too often sigh when they walk into what they thought was a presentation only to find that it is actually going to be an active session; or worse that it was flipped and they haven’t done the pre-work. One colleague told me that at a conference she recently attended, many of the sessions were organized around active work and that when that was announced many people would just leave.

Which got me wondering about what we are doing to our undergraduate students. How much active learning is enough? Research shows that active learning improves student performance, but so far the research has been on individual courses. What might happen to a student who has their whole schedule as active classes? How will they feel walking into lecture? Might it be too much? Might they disengage? Might the results start to swing the other way?

This concern was reinforced at the edX Global Forum last week during a panel consisting entirely of students who were discussing their experience of blended learning. Of course these were all very successful students, the ones who did well in the relevant courses. (I can’t imagine that it would be easy to convince a student who did poorly in a course to go be on a panel with MIT students who did really well.) These students reported that active learning is harder and that going to lecture takes more work. They explicitly said they were not sure they could take an entire schedule of active lectures. If the most capable and engaged students are thinking this, what about the rest of the class?

The above is all anecdotal of course, and it might be that as we get better at running active classes we can make them less taxing. But at this point I think proponents of active learning (myself included) should do some research, or at the very least legwork, to explore the question of how well active learning works it becomes a larger and larger percentage of a student’s entire schedule? A first initial step would be to just go to three active lectures in one day and see what that feels like. But of course we are going to need to follow that up with more systematic evaluations as well.

The systematic transformation of a curriculum to an active format is very expensive. On that I think we all agree. If it turns out that doing the whole curriculum is too much, then it would be nice to know that before we spend all those resources.


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Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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