Wednesday, 19 August 2015

science, learning, and environments that produce eureka moments

Is there a similarity between how science operates and how we try to construct the learning environments of our classrooms?

I was speaking about this with Duston Moore, one of our educational developers in the UofA's CTL. It goes back to my attempts at using active learning strategies in the classroom with the goal of producing deeper learning by engaging students. What we discussed is how giving students the answer short circuits deep learning because knowledge sticks when we discover it for ourselves: when the light goes on in our head as understanding dawns and we experience our own personal eureka moment.

Science, in some sense is always searching for those eureka moments - those flashes of insight where, moments before, seemingly disparate pieces of information suddenly come together and we understand the world in a new way. Sometimes the eureka moment builds over time with repeated attempts at showing something is true only to have the experiment appear to fail - or at least fail to give the expected results. But by attacking the problem from different vantage points, using different techniques or conditions, eventually we see what was an anomaly actually makes sense when viewed in a different way.

Perhaps teaching and learning are similar. As instructors we need to produce a learning environment for our students whereby they are able to put the pieces together themselves constructing their own internal knowledge structure made robust by its integration with their personal experience. And when our students are unable to put the pieces together we need to think of other ways to present the material or concept fresh that sheds light on what students cannot yet see and understand.

How do we learn? How do we know? I wonder if there are some similarities between learning and how science is done? I wonder if making students aware of how we ourselves learn, will strengthen their ability to learn? The literature on metacognition of learning certainly suggests this to be the case.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How do students become self-directed learners? In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 188–216). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Increase your abilities. In Make it stick: The science of successful learning (pp. 162–200). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Coutinho, S. A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate~, 7(1), 39 – 47.

Girash, J. (2014). Metacognition and instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (pp. 152–168). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

is it malpractice to not use active learning teaching strategies?

Any teaching and learning strategy can be poorly implemented resulting in a poor learning experience: Active learning included. A 2011 article by Andrews et al suggests that implementation of active learning strategies does not lead to improved learning outcomes without a fundamental change in instructors' viewpoint from didactic teaching to constructivist learning. Plugging in a technique will not transform a poor teacher into a good teacher. There are many facets that must be considered when implementing active learning; for example the impact of peer learning or giving time for students to first process the answer themselves.

But I do think that active learning is an essential component of learner-centred teaching which rests on a constructivist understanding of learning. We (learners of all ages and disciplines) construct our own knowledge structure by integrating new learning with what what we have learned before. Passive didactic lecture is no better than assigning textbook pages for students to read (Bligh, 1998). Notice that I qualified that with passive didactic. This is what active learning is typically compared to. Socratic lecturing is not passive didactic - that is a form of active learning IMHO. Is active reading a form of active learning? I believe it is. But not just passive reading with highlighter in hand. But rather active reading with pencil in hand and perhaps a set of guiding questions to consider/answer while reading.

In a  related study a flipped classroom approach was compared to a non-flipped approach in which both versions of the class were constructed using the 5E learning cycle. What they found was that flipping makes no difference if active learning is already taking place regardless of whether the instructor-mediated, in-class portion is during the content attainment phase or during the content application phase. They suggest that the improved student learning outcomes apparent with flipping the classroom are solely a result of the active learning that typically accompanies flipping. oCUBE discussed the flipped vs non-flipped paper at a recent journal club meeting and one of the interesting issues that came up for us is whether or not flipping the classroom is reliant upon technology. Jensen et al (2015) certainly assume that this is the case but oCUBErs felt that flipping with active learning can happen by simply assigning textbook readings prior to their active application in class. What makes the flip so powerful compared to the olden days when reading was assigned is that students in the flipped classroom are typically held accountable for their out-of-class preparation (quiz, assignment, blog post).

In contrast to all of the positive findings on the efficacy of flipped learning, another study found that flipping works in the short term but not necessarily the long term with the suggestion that impact on student learning outcomes might be sustained if flipping was more deeply embedded in the educational curriculum (i.e. students experience flipping in more than one course). If it is active learning rather than flipping that results in improved student learning outcomes, I wonder if this implies that active learning has long lasting effects only if implemented across students' curriculum (i.e. experience active learning in more than one course). Of course this is speculative given the different natures of the studies and what they were measuring (course outcomes vs metacognitive/collaborative skills). But it is interesting to consider.

The July 15, 2015 issues of Scientific American and Nature were coordinated to address the changes that need to occur in science education to improve student learning outcomes. While they both focus on the sciences, their advocacy of the the impact of active learning cuts across all academic disciplines. Given that the evidence for active learning is becoming overwhelming (Freeman et al 2014, Weimer 2013, Michael 2006,  Prince 2004; note that the Allen 2014, Weiman 2014, and Weimer 2015a & 2015b resources below are all commentary on the Freeman et al 2014 key reference) it seems almost like malpractice if instructors are not using active learning strategies in their classes. Freeman et al (2014), make the startling conclusion that 12% of the study's students would not have failed the course if active learning had been used. Could those students sue the institution/instructor for malpractice given the evidence of the efficacy of active learning?


Weimer M. 2015b. More evidence that active learning trumps lecturing. Faculty Focus (June 3).

Weimer, M. (2013). Research: Evidence that learner-centered approaches work. In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2nd ed., pp. 28–55). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.