Tag Archives: activeLearning

CollegeQandA asks: Why is active learning the best learning?

Why is active learning the best learning?

Let us take one step back and ask “What is active learning?”.  The basic idea of Active Learning is that the person who takes action during class time is the one who learns the most and should be the student.  Therefore, if classes move from passive lectures to active lectures, where students do things, then the learning for students will be better or more efficient.

So, is active learning better?  Not always.

Playing and singing on harp

Diverse learning is better?

So, what is diverse learning?  I kind of made up the term.  I would call “diverse learning” an environment where a learner has the opportunity to experience and be assessed on doing in a number of ways.

For example, some of the best learning I have done in class was when both the professor and the textbook were not conveying the ideas successfully to me as the learner.  In this case, it appeared I had no resource that could guide me along the learning path to understand the material.  I learned to seek out other resources (textbooks, people, etc.) and to mold those other resources into the course I was being taught.  If the teacher or textbook are always exactly what you need to learn something then you will never learn to seek out and use other resources or learn from them.

Many people will bash on the lecture as a bad format for learning.  Some evidence might suggest that lectures are a poor efficiency use for learning, but equally, information and ideas will be delivered in your lifetime in a format that you simply need to focus on and extract meaning from.  If you can’t do this, then you will not be able to learn from lectures.

Active learning is one of the many modes of teaching and learning that should be part of your diverse learning environment, but you need the variety.

Active learning is good though

In terms of maximizing learning, I feel active learning is on a higher level than many on how to use class time efficiently.  It is, however, tricky to manage, more work for both professor and student, and non-conducive to many classrooms including their size, space, and content requirements.

Credits: photo titled: Active Child Laneway Adelaide12; by: Peter Tea

CollegeQandA asks: Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites, and what do they think about them?

Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites?

There are many resources on the internet that will help you in your courses.  Some of these sites do have material that students upload from previous years that you can purchase or upload your work and sell it – such as Course Hero.  Do professors know about these sites?  I would say a good number do, but definitely, not all of them.

Course Hero Screenshot

The existence of test banks (groups keeping records of all the tests and in some cases answers), course notes from previous years, and the accumulation of information as related to a course is not new.  The internet and its all-to-all communication model has just made it a little easier for this information to be archived and searched, and the existence of these types of sites was inevitable.  In the future, there might be some legal battles fought out on who owns what in the case of a course, but until then here are some basic ideas.

What do professors think about these sites?

I can’t speak for all professors, but I’m certain that universities and their faculty have a mixed opinion of this type of information being available, and a bigger concern on how it could be used.  For example, most professors would agree that using this material in the form of copying would be considered a violation of academic integrity.  In other cases, however, this material could be useful for a student to model solutions, answers, or responses that is a goal for a student to achieve.   Using material in this way might be fine.  So there’s a mixed feeling on this information being available.

Note, there are some course syllabi that strictly state that material from the course is not to be shared.  In these instances, uploading that course material is a clear violation that might result in further academic and legal battles that I can’t guess how they might proceed.

The future is active and tailored learning

In my opinion, these types of sites will have less and less impact as we proceed into better higher education.  For those courses that are template based and use traditional information transfer that is assessed through basic tests, then these types of sites are a concern.  For most of my courses, which are active learning with some student proposed work, these sites offer little benefit when a student has to learn to perform.

In the big picture of a degree, information is always available and is ever more accessible.  Information is useless unless it can be used in our ever theme of “doing”.  You won’t get a good job or a great career or achieve anything meaningful unless you learn to do.  Learning to do is hard, and there is no easy path.  Sites like these promise the potential for an easy something, but my guess is they rarely lead to any great achievement – just a way of skipping the work.

CollegeQandA asks: Why are projects so important in College?

Why are projects so important in College?Building Construction

Projects are some of the closest activities you’ll do in College that have some similarity to the working world (that I assume you are trying to join).  A project allows you to demonstrate that you can do something from early conception to close to completion.

There are very few jobs in – taking exams

It’s true.  There just aren’t many jobs out there in taking exams, regurgitating facts, showing the steps on how you solved something, and picking between letters in multiple choice or picking true/false.  The follow up question should be, “Why then do we take all these exams in school?”

Well there are a number of reasons to take exams, but start with this idea that exams are meant to assess how well you have learned a particular set of concepts and ideas.  How should a teacher determine if you understand these ideas and concepts and give you feedback on your learning?  Exams and tests are a way to do this assessment at a reasonable time cost.  For example, with a test that I can create in about 4 hours, have students do in 1 hour, and mark/grade in 8 hours it costs only 17 hours and maybe 52 person hours (for a class of 30 students).  If a machine can grade the test, that time goes down.  So in many cases examinations are the easiest and most efficient (time perspective) method for assessing student knowledge.

For that same class of 30 students, if I spent 20 minutes in an oral examination to evaluate their understanding, it would take 10 hours assuming that I know the right oral questions to ask and probe, there are no delays between students, the scheduling of these oral questions is magically administrated, everyone takes exactly 20 minutes, and so on.  That assessment is harder to implement for the teacher though and the time will always be much greater.

Projects to the rescue

A project in a class is an opportunity to create an activity that can be assessed in reasonable time, but the depth of student work (including creativity, problem solving, communication, doing, and critical thinking) goes far deeper than almost any exam can capture.  Plain and simple, the learners doing the project tend to learn far more since they have to do something and solve all the steps to get it done.

I also like open ended projects since students have the opportunity to create and do something they’re interested in.  For engineers, this might be one of the few opportunities in their lives to work on their creations as opposed to being told what they need to do.

Finally, projects with their depth and unknown challenges they provide mirror more of what people tend to do in the working world.

Is there anything projects can’t do?

The worst thing about class projects is they lack a completion and quality aspect.  For example, a student group starts to do their project, gets close to the end of the semester, and runs out of time.  What do they do?  Submit what they have done and probably get a lower grade for their work.  The same is not true in the real world.  A lower grade for not completing a project or delivering a weak project is getting fired.  So projects lack a more pure assessment in college.

Second, most projects are done in groups again to simulate the “real-world”.  Group work has all sorts of complexities that make it hard to achieve something.  It seems like someone always free loads.  People are hard to work and get along with.

Projects have many other limitations, and are just another activity/assessment that is part of your learning.

Projects are good

Still, each project you have is an opportunity to establish your portfolio.  Projects are the rare opportunities in school to allow you to take some autonomy (see the book Drive by Pinker).  Projects can be lots of fun.  And projects are about the closest to real you can get in college.

Credits: photo titled: Construction; by Stephen Rush

CollegeQandA asks: How are professors trained to teach?

How are professors trained to teach?

An interesting question that not many undergraduates understand is: How are professors trained to teach?

Baby with glasses on

The secret is, most of us are not trained in any teaching.  Graduate degrees (Masters and Ph.Ds.) are degrees pursuing leading edge research and creative endeavors.  Many of your professors will have no formal training in education other than some basic courses.

Why do they have no training?

Many graduate schools around the world have programs that help train graduate students to teach.  Typically, new faculty will have orientation and additional programs/workshops to help them improve their classroom teaching.  In the end, with all this training a professor will have spent at most 20-40 hours of educational training.  Compare that time to a typical higher education class worth 3 credit hours.  Over 15 weeks, student’s will have had at least 45 hours of class time on the topic of the class.

So, professors will have some training in education, but in reality, the training is very limited, but the rest of the learning to teach is done (or not done) by ourselves.  The reason for this is that teaching training is not a priority within higher education.  Instead, there seems to be a mentality of I learned this way and this stuff, and therefore, my students can also learn this way and this stuff.  There’s not a huge problem with this mentality since for decades the model has worked, and people still get careers and work in their respective fields.

Is there a case for improvement?

As an engineer (not practicing), I’m not too crazy about my above argument.  One of my question is if professors are better teachers then, on average, will our students learn more?  I don’t have any direct research to answer this question.  I, at least, believe that universities could make some real attempt at testing this crazy question.  Many schools have taking a dedication to teaching and learning.  Is your school one?

Credits: photo titled: Professor Baby; by Quinn Dombrowski