A few things have been troubling me recently. Do I teach too much stuff? Is teaching on my course too didactic? Am I over-reliant on knowledge transfer and passive learning? Do my students forget everything they have learnt on the course once they have sat their written formal exams? Are my students’ BSc/MSc marks not reflective of their ability/knowledge/skills at graduation? I’m going to go with the answer of ‘probably not’, just for now, despite negative comments about what is my preferred teaching style.
I have discussed a couple of major studies on active learning vs. passive learning in STEM subjects in my blog here and here. Despite these rather critical post-publication peer reviews, I am certainly not against what are described as ‘active learning’ approaches. The MSc course that I run has no more than 30% of the marks awarded from formal written exam based around ‘scientific lecture content’. This is very low for the sector, so on the face of it not overly traditional. There is extensive problem-based learning, laboratory work, lab-reports, group assignments, presentations and written essays, professional skills and project work, much of which consolidates learning of lecture content. However for the ‘formal taught scientific content’ parts, I do still tend to give 2 hour lecture sessions, where I am talking for anything up to 80% of the time. When I am not talking, I am encouraging some active learning by asking questions, a bit of peer-instruction here and there, debating, doing the odd quiz, getting students to answer questions embedded in the lecture notes and sometimes testing prior knowledge before I have even started talking. Typically I upload all lecture materials and support reading prior to sessions onto the VLE so students don’t arrive ‘cold’, and can attempt some activities prior to the session. These ‘active learning’ activities within the formal lectures do seem (anecdotally I admit) to encourage learning within the session, and also highlight to me misconceptions due absence of required prior knowledge, or just things that I just haven’t explained very well.
So if these ‘active learning’ sessions are so useful in my lectures, why not do the full 2 hour session using this manner? Flipped classroom teaching has been proposed by some, whereby lectures are pre-recorded and watch prior to the session, leaving the full lecture time free for discussion. Others propose discovery learning and problem-based learning, which promotes deeper understanding than passive learning. For me, the problem with 100% ‘active learning’ approaches comes down to content. Yes, there is lots of it in Bioscience, and the lecture is efficient in this regard. However within STEM subjects, I am slightly troubled by the end-point of many discussions whereby the proposal is to decrease content in favour of depth of learning. It’s not that my students’ answers in exams are superficial. The best of them already give very deep, reasoned, well-though-out answers that are at times really testing the tutors’ own knowledge. I really don’t see broad superficial learning from those at the top. However follow any educational conference or L&T Twitter discussion and you will perpetually hear the following negative remarks:
‘the answer (for active learning approaches) in many cases is to cut out huge swathes of content‘ Narrative: Too much content
‘try cutting out stuff and everyone suddenly has a vested interest’ Narrative: Too much content, much irrelevant
‘reduce content as this will promote deeper approaches’ Narrative: Too much content, specialise in fewer areas
‘Handing out lecture notes = admitting there is a problem with the lecture’ Narrative: too much content to remember in lecture session
‘if you believe that lecturing is simply the transfer of information then you will soon be out of a job’ Narrative: Lectures (and lecturers) are rubbish
All of these comments are from discussions of active learning and technology-enhanced learning approaches over more traditional approaches. Probably the most concerning is the notion that these active learning approaches are ‘better’ when we need to cut out vast amounts of content for them to be properly implemented. If 100% active learning approaches cannot deliver the required content to the same learning outcomes, then is it necessarily ‘better’ than a predominantly traditional-based or mixed active-traditional approach, or just different? Do we need to amend the learning outcomes to make the method of delivery ‘fit’?
Let’s put it another way. If my manager asked me to cut out half of the content from my course to make it ‘easier’ for some weak international students to get a ‘deeper understanding’ of specific topic areas, I’d consider this to be dumbing down, and rightly so. Recent events at Anglia Ruskin highlight the potential for falling foul of the QAA on precisely this matter. This case highlights the importance of tightly adhering to validated learning outcomes of nothing else. If I did the same, and reduced half of my content but used 100% active learning approaches throughout all of my sessions as the reason, I’d probably get promoted into the faculty L&T team for it. And there lies a problem.
So, the question is: Do we deliver too much ‘taught scientific content’ in STEM? If we don’t, then deliver all sessions by whatever methods work well for you, be it 100% active learning, traditional lecture, or in my preference of a lecture with some active learning ‘nuggets’, and continue to assess to the same standards as existing courses at similar institutions. If we do genuinely deliver too much content, then cut it down, and fully justify that decision based on comparisons with similar established courses at similar institutions. However cuts to an existing course curriculum should not be for the sole reason that it doesn’t fit with our new preferred pedagogy.
One last point: Here is a top tip for Edubloggers