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

America's most movie-friendly classroom

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.

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

Making Course Evaluations More Useful


This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

Student teaching evaluations are notoriously flawed. At best, they are unreliable. (They are, on the other hand, reliably sexist.) Educators are understandably cynical about them, not only because of student bias but also because of the arbitrary ways they’re sometimes used. “The less time we spend talking about teaching, the better,” I once heard a senior academic say during a job search; this same professor was rumored to have used poor teaching evaluations to sink the tenure application of someone he disliked. A friend of mine even believes a colleague wrote fake Rate My Professors entries to use against him at a promotion hearing.

Yet student course evaluations are part of life for most college instructors. Is there any way to make them more useful, or at least to mitigate the harm they can do? I’ve found two things moderately helpful.

Continue reading “Making Course Evaluations More Useful”