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Why Students Resist Active Learning

Active Learning

Why Students Resist Active Learning

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tug of war
The recent decades have seen growing faculty interest in learning. Increasingly, teaching is being understood in terms of how well it promotes and facilitates learning. Faculty are more familiar than ever with the evidence that favors active learning over lecture. And although many still lecture, most instructors acknowledge that they should be using more active learning. Change comes slowly to higher education, but it does come. What hasn’t kept pace with changing faculty attitudes and practices is student interest in and understanding of themselves as learners. Student resistance to active learning is regularly reported. Part of this is resistance for understandable reasons. Active learning means more work for students. They aren’t getting a neat, comprehensive package of teacher-generated examples, but are having to come up with their own. They aren’t watching the teacher solve all the problems, but are being put into groups to collectively work on the problems. Passive learning is easier than active learning, but then passivity doesn’t always result in learning, especially learning that lasts and knowledge that can be applied. Students also resist because active learning isn’t always effectively designed. Neither are lectures, but when the teacher drones on and the content wanders from here to there, students can tune out and pretend that they’re listening. Working with others to discuss what they need to know from the reading isn’t all that productive when group members are prepared to varying degrees and the discussion occurs without some teacher-provided context. Objections to poorly designed and implemented active learning are justified.

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The recent decades have seen growing faculty interest in learning. Increasingly, teaching is being understood in terms of how well it promotes and facilitates learning. Faculty are more familiar than ever with the evidence that favors active learning over lecture. And although many still lecture, most instructors acknowledge that they should be using more active learning. Change comes slowly to higher education, but it does come. What hasn’t kept pace with changing faculty attitudes and practices is student interest in and understanding of themselves as learners. Student resistance to active learning is regularly reported. Part of this is resistance for understandable reasons. Active learning means more work for students. They aren’t getting a neat, comprehensive package of teacher-generated examples, but are having to come up with their own. They aren’t watching the teacher solve all the problems, but are being put into groups to collectively work on the problems. Passive learning is easier than active learning, but then passivity doesn’t always result in learning, especially learning that lasts and knowledge that can be applied. Students also resist because active learning isn’t always effectively designed. Neither are lectures, but when the teacher drones on and the content wanders from here to there, students can tune out and pretend that they’re listening. Working with others to discuss what they need to know from the reading isn’t all that productive when group members are prepared to varying degrees and the discussion occurs without some teacher-provided context. Objections to poorly designed and implemented active learning are justified. But there’s something else in students’ rejection of these learner-focused strategies that is troubling, and that’s lack of interest in learning and failure to understand much about how learning happens. Survey data on active learning and lecture collected from second-year medical students illustrate this (Tsang & Harris, 2016). The students state that 61 percent of the material in a unit should be delivered by lecture. (Faculty thought the amount should be 40 percent.) Among six ways to learn content, students ranked reading the material in a text and listening to lecture as the best ways to learn. They did not believe that active learning experiences improved exam scores as much as the faculty believed they did. The authors state, “These data suggest that students are not familiar with the process of learning and that more time may be needed to help students develop lifelong learning skills.” In Stanger-Hall (2012), where undergraduate biology students had short answer and fill-in type questions along with multiple choice questions and where having those types of question resulted in higher exam scores, ergo more learning, students still registered a strong preference for tests with only multiple-choice questions. Multiple-choice tests in both the experimental and control sections included 25-30 percent higher-level thinking questions. The teacher had introduced students to Bloom’s taxonomy and shared with them that developing higher-order critical thinking skills was one of the course goals. Students objected, giving lower ratings on the course evaluation item dealing with the fairness of grading in the course. They explained in the comments that they wanted the instructor to “just teach biology” and not emphasize higher-order thinking. The strong emphasis on content in our courses and in how we teach has clearly rubbed off on students. Learning is assumed to be a kind of nonentity that just sort of happens when students study. It doesn’t merit special attention. Obviously that perspective is terribly short-sighted. Learning should be a life-long endeavor for everyone, and in most professional settings it certainly is an ongoing expectation. How one goes about learning matters. Our interest in learning needs to be shared with students. We need to talk about it with a clear focus--not just on what’s being learned, but on how we are learning it and why knowing that is important. What little students know about learning, they think applies to every course. The approaches used to solve problems aren’t differentiated from the ones used to write a paper. They’re using different approaches, granted, but they don’t think about them as being different. To their way of thinking, it’s all part of doing school work. If the study strategies used to prepare for an exam didn’t result in a particularly good grade, and they’re asked what they plan to do for the next exam, their typical response is “more.” They’ll do more of what they did for the first exam: read more, come to class more, study more. In most cases, more is part of the solution but not the whole answer. In all likelihood they need to be using different study strategies, ones with empirical track records that have established their positive effects on learning. In this case as well, teachers need to be there for the students with information on those strategies and with activities in the course that model approaches such as self-testing and distributed practice. Study needs to move from “going over” the class notes and reading to “getting into” them with interactive strategies such as reorganizing notes and graphically illustrating text content. We must continue to teach our content, but a focus on learning means we use the content to develop the content knowledge base (just as we always have). We also must use the content to develop those learning skills that enable students to master it now, retain it for later, and learn more of it in the future. References: Stanger-Hall, K. E. (2012). Multiple-choice exams: An obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. Cell Biology Education, 11(Fall), 294–306. Tsang, A., & Harris, D. M. (2016). Faculty and second-year medical student perceptions of active learning in an integrated curriculum. Advances in Physiology Education, 40(4), 446–453.