Should We Abandon Active Learning for Lecturing?

A Sunday New York Times op-ed about teaching style—currently one of the most-emailed articles on the newspaper’s website—issues a call for more lectures and less active learning, at least in the humanities. Molly Worthen, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that lectures teach students comprehension and reasoning. “Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen,” she writes.

It’s a provocative argument, given the movement toward active learning in recent years, and given what we know about the advantages of actively engaging students in a variety of ways (see the recent post by my colleague, WAC Fellow Claire Hoogendoorn, for more on that research). But it’s also a false dichotomy. Lecturing and active learning don’t have to be opposites; in fact, Worthen herself emphasizes the importance of one form of active learning during lectures: note-taking. She writes:

But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking…. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

Indeed, research indicates that taking notes helps not just with retention of information, but also with conceptual understandings. (And, as Worthen points out, writing notes by hand seems to do an even better job of it than using a laptop.) Many students have never been taught how to take notes, though; they need to be taught. WAC Fellows can help you do that yourself, and we also offer a student note-taking workshop in the spring.

There are other ways to incorporate active learning through writing into the lecture format. Below are just a few, drawn from Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (2011).

  • Develop Exploratory Writing Tasks Keyed to Your Lectures. These assignments, which could be in-class or out-of-class, cannot be completed without paying attention to the lecture. Example: At the end of class, ask students to take five minutes to argue for or against an important idea from the lecture.
  • Break the Pace of a Lecture Using “Minute Papers.” Stop in the midst of a lecture and ask students to write for five minutes in response to a question connected to that point in the lecture. This gives you feedback and refocuses student attention.
  • Ask Students to Write Summaries of One or More of Your Lectures. These should be short and can be done either in class or out of class, and help student understanding as well as giving you feedback.

These don’t have to create more work for you. Most could be ungraded, or graded for completion only; you could also grade only a fraction of them each time. And by bringing low-stakes writing like this into the lecture format, you can help ensure that your lectures are being heard and understood.







Using WAC Techniques to Introduce Discipline-Specific Writing

Through recent discussions with other WAC fellows and CUNY faculty, it has becoming increasing clear that as instructors, we often forget to take a step back and make sure our students have an understanding of what is expected of them for writing in the discipline of which our class is a part (whatever discipline that may be). Early to mid-way into a semester (earlier the better), as simple as it may seem, it is immensely useful to gauge student writing in order to ensure they do in fact understand what is meant by a thesis, for example in whatever field we are in (and what course they are taking). This is just one writing-related term that truly can mean varying things in different fields or at minimum may look different depending upon the discipline.

Take the students’ perspective for a minute. Imagine going from an Introduction to Psychology class, to an English class, followed by a course in Mathematics all in the same day. Each of these disciplines requires different formats and structures in regards to writing. You can see how easy it would be to as a student, assume that writing in the manner that earned you an ‘A’ on an English assignment may surprisingly earn you a ‘B’ or less on a Psychology research proposal (or vice versa) if you were never giving explicit instructions for what qualifies as a ‘good’ paper for a particular type of class. Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) techniques offer some great tools towards improving our students’ writing, even for assisting them on the way of learning the specific writing style we expect in our own courses.

In order to see where our students are in the writing process for our discipline, as instructors we can initially do one of several specific things:

1)      Provide a discipline-specific piece of writing in class, give students time to read it, and then discuss as a class how this writing may be different than that of other types of courses students have taken.

2)      Assign several discipline-specific professional readings (one at the beginning and several others throughout) and provide a template that asks directed questions about the texts, hereby pointing out the important structural aspects of the writing piece.

3)      Give time during class for small groups of students to pick out seemingly important parts of a provided reading, have them define separate sections, and finally openly explaining to students (during class time if at all possible) how your field defines and structures a thesis, evidence, supporting arguments, etc.

4)      Give a take-away handout that clearly and succinctly lists the requirements you have for the content and structure of writing assignments in your course (for which you take a few minutes to explain in person if the class is not online).

Two more helpful tips from evidence-based WAC practices:

  • Of course students mostly learn from doing and redoing or writing and rewriting! Therefore, multiple drafts of the same assignment are always essential to the writing process regardless of discipline.
  • Scaffolding (creating smaller assignments that build up to a larger more complete final paper, lab report, project, or proposal) is incredibly helpful for students to understand complex ideas or information that is new to them (this has been extremely beneficial for my students’ research proposals as many of them never write in this manner before entering my class). This allows them to master important specific aspects of a bigger assignment before the final result which is often worth many more points.