Almost 70 percent of students in 10 sections of an introductory biology course reported that the instructor provided a justification for using active learning in the course. That’s encouraging. Students need to know the rationale behind what we ask them to do in the course. Researchers looked further for justifications of active learning in the course syllabus and observed the first day of class to hear verbal explanations. They found and heard more of both as well. Faculty were also surveyed as to the reasons why they were using several specific active learning strategies; clickers, verbal questioning, and completion of written work during class meetings. They offered a variety of reasons.
A further finding merits consideration. It was never a majority but still a reasonable chunk of students reported that the teacher was using a particular strategy for reasons not identified by the instructor. For example, teachers said they used clickers to see if students were understanding, to get them thinking, to encourage preparation before class, and to foster involvement. Students who didn’t mention these reasons reported that instructors were using clickers to track attendance. When asked why instructors asked questions in class, this group of students said it was to see if they were paying attention, staying alert.
Those are primarily punitive reasons and are not the best motivations for using these active learning strategies. And yet students (I’m not sure how many) tend to attribute punitive intentions to any number of faculty actions. I once gave a quiz and students did poorly. After class a student asked me if I was going to go home and celebrate. I didn’t get it. “Oh, aren’t you going to go home to celebrate how you got us on that quiz?” That was an eye opener.
Where do students get these ideas? They’ve had teachers who use the power of the position in punitive ways—to get students. I can’t believe that’s very many teachers. I think more often the teaching behavior is ambiguous—it could be that teachers are calling on students so they don’t sleep in class, and because students may feel powerless, it seems like a reasonable assumption. When it comes to assignments, there’s the impression that these are things teachers make students do. The “what do you want” question presumes that teachers have these things in mind that students are supposed to do. Of course, they aren’t things students would do, had they any choice.
I do think this propensity some students have to attribute erroneous motivations to our actions should cause a regular review of what we have students doing with a critical eye on the reasons why. We are free to make requirements and students mostly feel they have to comply. Our course design decisions should rest on what we believe promotes learning.
It’s also a reminder that as clear as our intentions may be to us, it doesn’t ensure their clarity to others. When I first started using group work more extensively I asked students why they thought a teacher would have students work collaboratively. “Because you didn’t have time to do a lecture.” The first time I heard that I thought it was a joke. When it was mentioned at the time (all three different courses), I asked how many students thought that’s why teachers used group work. A majority of hands did not go up but more than few did.
These researchers explain the importance of sharing the rationale for active learning. Students do not come to our courses knowing much about learning generally or themselves as unique, individual learners. We can tell them the rationale (as most of the faculty in this study did) but the reasons for active learning and a lot of other instructional activities are more persuasive and compelling if students discover their value on their own. I used a group testing model—students did the exam individually and then in a group. They “really liked” the group test. Why? “Well, when the rest of the group explained it to me, I understood. That’s when I finally learned it.” When I asked what conclusion might be drawn from experience, a young man piped up, “you really can learn stuff in this course from other students.” I remember feeling like blowing a kiss in that kid’s direction.
Brigati, J., England, B. J., & Schussler, E. (2019). It’s not just for points: Teacher justifications and student perceptions about active learning. Journal of College Science Teaching, 48(3), 45–55.