Today, I will be returning to the topic of active learning. In my last post on active learning I discussed some techniques and technological solutions to incorporate active learning in the classroom. I didn’t write about how to structure active learning, an order of operations as it were. I was inspired to write about this after seeing a video from Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings website by Carl Wieman called – “Don’t Lecture Me!”

I highly recommend watching this video. To summarize, Carl takes us through his particular flavour of active learning; the video features part of his talk, as well as a discussion with professors at UBC. Carl contrasts his method with the classic lecturing method – one where the teacher stands in front of the class and presents the relevant material to students.

His flavour of active learning includes the following steps:

  1. Assign a little bit of reading before the lecture.
  2. Start the lecture with a question.
  3. In class the students answer the question through a mobile application.
  4. In small group discussions the students discuss their answers - it’s at this point that Carl snoops in on the discussions.
  5. After this discussion, the students can revote on the original question.
  6. It is now that the teacher reveals the correct answer, followed by an explanation informed by the discussions had by the students.
  7. Repeat with a different question.

What is great about this method that they had two instructors cover the same material with separate groups. The material was tested shortly after the lecture, and low and behold, the active learning method did better across the board. Below I’ve posted an image from the video, the image shows that the active learning technique greatly improves the students grade.

Figure 1: The results which compare the traditional method with the new active learning method.

Another article I found said that attendance was also 20 percent higher. These are remarkable results, but also follows from lots of well-known principles of learning. We know people learn by thinking through a problem, lots of testing (active recall), and discussion with peers. This framework forces the student to actively engage with those principles.

This does however fly in the face of how students are currently taught in undergraduate courses. And, some of these concerns are raised in the video. But, what about me? I did great in the old system. And, what about the introverts? These people that did well in the old system, or the introverts, are thought of as people that are uncomfortable with communication. The suggestion is that they should toughen up, and that communicating on your subject is part of the curriculum. Funny enough, this is a similar attitude I hear from the opponents of active learning; “those that can’t deal with the traditional method should also just toughen up.” And, communication skills are learned through other organizations like student societies and in-class presentations. Furthermore, many opponents of active learning don’t want to walk students through the material, or “spoon-feed” the students the method of solving problems. Each student should look at the material, and decide for themselves how to learn the material. What schedule to follow, or how many hours they want to spend on it.

I think both styles can complement each other. A traditional lecture where the curated material is presented in an entertaining way. And, a tutorial session in which more active learning strategies are applied. That way we get the best of both worlds. One key difficulties I see in this active learning strategy is the formulation of the in-class questions. They need to be crafted in a way that they are challenging for the level of the students, and thought-provoking for students that may be ahead. I can’t imagine a more boring session when the questions are too easy. Though if they are too hard, then you might just end up demotivating most students to participate.

I’m excited to try this style in a lecture I may do in the future. I taught linear conduction in walls last summer. This seems to be a great place to design a couple of questions. How does the slope of the temperature gradient look like when the boundary conditions are given, and the conduction coefficients for each layer in the wall differ? We could do some simple calculations in class and I have some code that can easily compute a linear time invariant problem. For the reading material, there are loads of great resource I could direct the students to. Lots of great ideas! I excited to see the students doing better.