A year ago I received the worst student ratings of instruction (SRIs) in my 28 years of teaching. On the Likert scale I am normally between 4 and 5 for quality of instructor and quality of the course. Last year, however, my fall term ratings for my sophomore cell biology course were below 3. Below 3! When I read that, I thought I was going to faint. All the effort and time I put into designing a quality learning experience for students went unappreciated. I felt nauseous.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was still trying to develop my lecture skills, I became quite good at telling students what to learn. My first couple years of teaching garnered SRIs that were not impressive, but by the time I applied for tenure, my reputation as a lecturer was well established. Back then I considered myself as an excellent teacher, but now I think I was an excellent lecturer.
In the mid-2000s I finally realized that excellent lecturing does not necessarily equate with excellent learning. This became apparent to me when students entered a senior course after I had taught them the junior prerequisite. I expected that we would move on to new material, deepening their prior learning. But my students regularly informed me that they had not learned what I considered prerequisite material. I protested, “I know you learned that because I taught you that course last year.”
So, my excellent lecturing was not producing excellent learning.
There was further evidence that the learning I wanted was not happening for my students. When I spoke with them after class or read their comments on my SRIs, it was clear that they did not understand why they performed poorly on my exams. During lecture, I explained things so well that they thought they understood the material and had learned it.
Many articles and books on learning and teaching explore this disconnect between students’ and teachers’ understandings of what it means to teach and learn. For example, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) recommend learning strategies, such as self-testing and retrieval practice, that help students avoid fooling themselves about what they think they’ve learned. Ambrose et al. (2010) offer multiple approaches—including contrasting cases, concept maps, decomposing tasks, and providing different contexts for applying particular skills—that teachers can use to get students fully engaged and promote deep learning. Cooper, Ashley, and Brownell (2017) suggest that addressing students’ expectations for learning can reduce their reluctance to engage in the hard, messy work of learning. And Weimer (2013) proposes that instructors design their courses so that students become responsible for their own learning. After reading all this material, I became convinced that active learning can improve student learning (Freeman et al., 2014) and so began to retool how I taught, starting with this course.
I redesigned the course with the goal of better engaging students in their own learning. I wanted to teach in ways that made students aware of what they actually knew and what they still needed to learn. I opted for the team-based learning structure, flipping my classroom so that students were responsible for their pre-class preparation. In class we used the time to clarify misunderstandings. I gave mini-lectures, but the bulk of class time was devoted to practice. Students applied their learning by solving exam-style problems with the assistance of their teammates and advice from me.
As with many others who’ve made this transition to active learning, student engagement in my classes rose markedly, but my SRIs did not. Students understood what I was trying to do, and many seemed to accept that this was in their best interests. I followed Smith’s (2008) advice and asked students during the first week of class which of the following they could best achieve on their own, which they could best achieve with help in class, and which was most important to them:
Typically, after some in-class discussion of these three questions, students seemed to understand the rationale behind how I proposed to structure the course.
But a different response emerged as the class progressed. Some students felt that I had abandoned them and that they were having to teach themselves the material. But this is exactly the kind of learning culture I was trying to foster. Only students can learn the material. All I can do is guide their learning and design a fertile educational environment in which learning can occur. But this approach made many of them uncomfortable. Others thought they were incapable of rising to the challenge, and the rest complained that there was extra out-of-class work, even though I had always expected out-of-class preparation. It’s just that the new class structure made this expectation explicit and held students responsible for it.
Then, last year, it wasn’t just that my ratings didn’t improve, they tanked. I received the worst SRIs of my career in this cell biology course. The evaluations were still more or less a bell curve, with some students appreciating the learning environment, but there were more negative responses than I typically receive: the bell curve had shifted to the left. The learning environment was not working for most students.
Scheduling changes may have been responsible for some of the slide in my ratings. My campus had changed from a five-course, 13-week term to one course in three weeks followed by four courses in 11 weeks. It is possible that my students were taking out their stress with the schedule change on my unfamiliar teaching strategy, but my colleagues did not experience the same resistance from their students. Could it have been this particular cohort or some more general change in incoming students? Maybe, but I tend to think it was my nontraditional approach to teaching.
As I was thinking this through, I came across Jenna Van Sickles’s 2016 article, which explores similar issues that she experienced when she flipped one of her math courses. Like me, she observed a marked improvement in students’ engagement during class. She also saw better final exam results. But her students did not like the learning experience. They felt they were not learning and felt abandoned by their instructor. It was reassuring to learn that my experiences were not unique.
So here is the conundrum: student learning is improving, but students don’t respond positively to the process. As Smith and Cardaciotto (2011) suggest, students approach active learning as if it were the “broccoli” of education. I was particularly troubled when I heard anecdotally that some of my students were actually changing majors as a result of their experiences in the course. Maybe some discovered they weren’t destined to become biologists, but that’s not how I feel about students deciding to leave my field. I needed to rethink my course redesign.
I want my courses to facilitate student mastery of the discipline and fan the flames of potential interest in the material. It may be, as Ambrose et al. (2010) note, that I have cognitively but not affectively engaged students. I have created a learning environment in which students are very aware of what they do and do not know and the effort required to master the content. But my current course structure or style of teaching may not sufficiently reassure students that they can master the material. I find this so odd because reassuring them is precisely my intention. I do believe that my students can learn the material, but my faith in their ability is not something they perceive. It seems that a number of my students don’t believe in themselves. So are there things I can do to promote students’ self-efficacy?
Again, I found help in the literature. The 2016 review by Bartimote-Aufflick et al. suggests that teachers provide more modeling of problem-solving for students, scaffold to a greater extent with the goals of providing students success earlier in the course, and increase opportunities to assess and identify their own errors and misconceptions. Another study suggests that students are more responsive to active learning if instructors get involved with students while they apply their learning in-class; how instructors facilitate active learning activities seems to be key (Finelli et al., 2018).
This is what makes teaching such a challenging profession. Each cohort of students brings to the classroom a different set of experiences and expectations. To reach each new cohort, I must be willing and able to tweak how I teach so that we can make this learning journey together. Teaching is incredibly difficult because as an instructor, I need to understand my students’ needs. I think I know what they need based on my almost three decades of teaching experience, but I’m becoming convinced that many students do not yet know what they need in order to learn. They seem to get stuck on the fact that learning is hard and requires effort and more work than they expected.
So, here’s how I decided to address students’ resistance to active learning. This year I gave students a choice. I told them on the first day of class that there were many ways to teach and learn and that I could use a variety of approaches. So, I asked them, how do you want to learn? How do you want me to teach? I shared the grading scheme I would use if I taught using team-based learning; it included lots of marks for formative and peer learning compared to the scheme I’d use in a more traditional classroom, which would include several summative exams and quizzes. However they wanted me to teach, we would have at least one midterm and one final exam. I asked students to discuss it among themselves and to send a representative to my office when they had decided. I left the classroom, and within the hour a student knocked on my door to inform me that the class had come to a consensus: they asked me to use team-based learning as the instructional strategy.
This year was a much better teaching experience for me: my Likert ratings are back above 4, so I’m also feeling better about how students are experiencing learning in my course.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bartimote-Aufflick, K., Bridgeman, A., Walker, R., Sharma, M., & Smith, L. (2016). The study, evaluation, and improvement of university student self-efficacy. Studies in Higher Education, 41(11), 1918–1942. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.999319
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L, III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cooper, K. M., Ashley, M., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). Using expectancy value theory as a framework to reduce student resistance to active learning: A proof of concept. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 18(2). https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v18i2.1289
Finelli, B. C. J., Nguyen, K., Demonbrun, M., Borrego, M., Prince, M., Husman, J., . . . Waters, C. K. (2018). Reducing student resistance to active learning: Strategies for instructors. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(5), 80–91.
Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(23), 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1319030111
Smith, C. V, & Cardaciotto, L. (2011). Is active learning like broccoli? Student perceptions of active learning in large lecture classes. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 11(1), 53–61. Retrieved from https://josotl.indiana.edu/article/view/1808/1805
Smith, G. A. (2008). First-day questions for the learner-centered classroom. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 17(5), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1002/ntlf.10101
Van Sickle, J. R. (2016). Discrepancies between student perception and achievement of learning outcomes in a flipped classroom. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16(2), 29–38. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v16i2.19216
Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Neil Haave, PhD, is a professor of biology at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus and an associate director of his university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.