What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?

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An interesting new study conducted at Harvard University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that undergraduates in introductory physics courses learn more in classrooms that employ active-learning instruction methods (specifically, problem-solving in small groups) than students taking notes on “passive” lectures—but think they learn less. The researchers propose that this discrepancy between actual and perceived learning happens because active learning requires more effort on students’ part; it feels frustrating or inefficient. They also warns that this means that relying on student evaluations of teaching could lead instructors to use “inferior (passive) pedagogical methods” in their quest to achieve the popularity of “superstar lecturers.”

The study (full version in PDF format here) seems excellent in design and careful in its conclusions. Unfortunately, Harvard has publicized it with a news article that draws a tiresome false dichotomy between lectures and active learning, going so far as to quote the peer-instruction proponent Eric Mazur—who helped with the study—this way:

‘This work unambiguously debunks the illusion of learning from lectures,’ he said. ‘It also explains why instructors and students cling to the belief that listening to lectures constitutes learning.’

Of course, the study does no such thing as Mazur’s first claim.

A few relevant details: The study was conducted with classes of Harvard students, mostly science and engineering majors, in “calculus-based” introductory courses designed to be appropriate for physics majors. Presumably, then, the students in these courses arrived with extensive background knowledge and skills relative to many undergraduates in other settings.

More importantly, all students spent the first 11 weeks of their 15-week course being taught through “interactive” rather than “passive” lectures: “Typical class meetings consisted of chalkboard lectures enhanced with frequent physics demonstrations, along with occasional interactive quizzes or conceptual questions.” Then, in week 12, students were randomly assigned to classrooms where an instructor taught using either active-learning activities or a “passive lecture”:

Students in both groups received identical paper handouts with key concepts and equations along with example problems targeting specific learning objectives. The handouts had blank space for students to take notes and fill in answers to these sample problems. … In the [lecture] group, the instructor presented slides based on the handouts, gave explanations and demonstrations, and solved the example problems while students listened and filled in the answers along with the instructor. Emphasis was placed on maximizing the fluency with which the information was delivered. … In the [active-learning] group, … students were instructed to solve the sample problems by working together in small groups while the instructor roamed the room asking questions and offering assistance. After the students had attempted each problem, the instructor provided a full solution that was identical to the solution given to the control group. Students were actively engaged throughout the class period, making the experimental group fully student-centered.

Then, at the end of that class period, students in each group were given an evaluation that asked them how strongly they agreed with the statement “I feel like I learned a great deal from this class,” as well as a multiple-choice quiz designed to test how much they had actually learned.

So: Every student in the study learned from lectures. In fact, every student in the study had already had extensive exposure to lectures as a primary instruction method throughout the course. Every student had also been exposed to active-learning strategies during those lectures prior to the experimental week, when the researchers artificially lectured in a more passive way. Furthermore, every student presumably had extensive background knowledge even before taking the course.

I complain a lot about the false dichotomy many academics draw between lectures and active learning, but interpreting this study in particular as discrediting the lecture takes a special amount of willpower.

If somebody pointed out that students learn more from writing than from readingwhich is clearly trueand then used that statement to dissuade instructors from assigning any reading in their courses, we would all immediately see the implicit false dichotomy for what it was. Writing presupposes effective reading. Why is it so much harder to exercise similar critical thought when people talk about the spoken word?

I can only assume the false dichotomy is so popular because so many people have taught or studied in conditions where lectures are purely passive, and because there’s so much justified resentment of lecturer “superstars” as well as monotonous drones, and perhaps because images of cavernous auditoriums at huge universities are so deeply built into how we visualize college life.

That is, everybody in America thinks college happens in Havemeyer Hall 309.

Perpetuating the false dichotomy makes it far harder than it should be to talk about how to devise broad-spectrum instructional methods that really work for most students.


Image: Photograph of Havemeyer Hall room 309, Columbia University, New York. Taken by film location scout Nick Carr, 2008. Used gratefully under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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