Tuesday, 18 June 2019

the Goldilocks point between lecture and active learning: 20-60%

This paper by Henderson et al (2018) suggests that most students will not penalize instructors who use active learning with low student evaluations of teaching. Interestingly, those instructors who used lecture more than 60% of the time reported no change in their student ratings of instruction (SRIs) whereas those who reported using lecture less than 20% of class time reported decreased SRIs. Those instructors whose implementation of active learning was between 20 to 60% typically reported an increase in SRIs.

A limitation that the authors fully acknowledge is that these data were collected by surveying faculty who had completed their four-day new professor workshop (NPW) during the first couple of years of their academic appointment. Their NPW has the goal to develop in new professors the capacity to implement active learning strategies. However! These are self-reports. SRIs were not actually enumerated and statistically analyzed. This is an issue for this study. Are instructors remembering their SRIs differently? How do they interpret their SRIs? Is a median above three (assuming a 5-point Likert scale) considered good to them? Is a median below four considered bad? There are differences in institutional culture as exemplified among the departments at my university.

Despite this major limitation, this is the beginning of gathering real evidence for how students respond to active learning.

Note that the authors clearly explain their position on the use of SRIs - that they should be interpreted carefully and only be one aspect of triangulating teaching efficacy. They suggest, however, that SRIs probably don’t even assess teaching efficacy and that other aspects of multi-faceted evaluation of teaching are necessary to actually assess teaching efficacy.

In addition, I appreciate that the authors clearly explain that the correlations between the amount of lecturing and SRIs are not set in stone. There were some instructors in their study who lectured less than 20% of the time who reported improved SRIs while there were also those in the Goldilocks region of 20-60% that reported decreases in SRIs. They make the important point that how active learning is received by students is heavily influenced by how instructors set up and facilitate the active learning activity in addition to the particular instructional/department/program context/culture. These all influence student expectations for instruction and learning and if the educational experience does not match students’ expectations, that is when students will award poor SRIs.

Teaching and learning are context dependent. The answer to how much active learning should be implemented in any particular class is... it depends.


Benton, S. L., & Ryalls, K. R. (2016). Challenging misconceptions about student ratings of instruction. IDEA Paper, 58(April), 1–22.

Henderson, C., Khan, R., & Dancy, M. (2018). Will my student evaluations decrease if I adopt an active learning instructional strategy? American Journal of Physics, 86(12), 934–942.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

what is the thesis of your course?

Two online articles spoke to me today spurring me to articulate how I approach my courses. The one by Ryan Boyd is an essay review of Josh Eyler's recent book How Humans Learn and the other by Kevin Gannon considers how to manage survey courses. Both consider what interferes with student learning and suggest that part of the issue is how some university courses are taught: large passive lectures with too much content. I am finally reading Paolo Freire's book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book I have been meaning to read for many years, in which one of the sources of oppression he suggests is the volume of content that is found in some courses. This is what Gannon refers to as the fire hose approach to teaching and learning: students open their brains wide and teachers rapidly pour the content in. I think this is akin to Freire's articulation of the banking model of education in which teachers transmit the information and students receive it banking it for later use in their brains. What Freire articulates in his book is that this is a form of oppression because it prevents students from thinking, it represses their ability to develop their cognition.

A few of weeks ago at the University of Alberta's Festival of Teaching and Learning, Dr Jeanette Norden gave the keynote address in which she advocated educators to teach less, better. (Notice the key placement of the comma in that phrase: it reminds me of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.) She urged educators to teach less content but to support students' learning of that content to a deeper level.

All of these recent sources that I have been thinking about suggest the same thing: in our courses, give students the room to think about what they are learning. Otherwise, students will only learn what we are teaching on a superficial level. Content heavy courses will not nurture our students' cognitive abilities.

Now, granted, there is a continuum here that is dependent upon how advanced a course is, students' previous experiences, and the goal of the course. Some courses will be more content heavy than others depending upon this constellation of factors. So how do we design our courses to take this into account?

The way I do it is similar to how I orient my overall assessment of a students' essay: what is the thesis of this paper and is that thesis well supported and articulated? The same question can be applied to any course we teach: what is the thesis of my course and does its design support that thesis? When approached this way, we are encouraged to curate the course content as suggested by Gannon - no longer is a fire hose needed to deliver an abundance of course content if only a few examples will support the course's thesis. Similarly, if we well articulate our thesis, then, as suggested by Boyd, we can begin to ask the salient questions that our course seeks to answer in order to resolve or support the thesis.


Boyd, R. (2019). Beautiful questions: “How Humans Learn” and the future of education. Los Angeles Review of Books. May 27.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed (50th anniv). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Gannon, K. (2019). How to Fix the Dreaded Survey Course. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 7.

Monday, 3 June 2019

2 hrs outside of class for every hr spent inside of class

This is the advice I learned as a student and the advice that many academic deans gave to our Augustana students since I started teaching in 1990. It has always generally been assumed that for students to be academically successful at college/university, they had to spend a minimum (yes, a minimum) of two hours studying outside of class for every hour spent inside of the class. If the typical academic program is 5 courses per term and each of those courses is meeting for three hours per week that sums to a minimum of 45 hrs per week (15 in class, 30 outside of class) learning academic skills and course material. I have always thought as a student and as a teacher, that a full-time undergraduate program of study is more than a full-time job.

Yes, this means that students in programs that require more than 15 hrs of class time per week (e.g. art studio, science courses with labs, engineering) expect/assume more time on task. This may not be that different from the Arts in which students have to read multiple novels or monographs for a given course. This is why I advocate for lab work during the 1st two years of students' undergraduate programs to be self-contained and not require any homework other than preparation for the lab. For more senior labs, these should be lab courses, not lec-lab courses. Otherwise, the expectations for students to spend time on coursework becomes unreasonable.

So why am I bringing this up now?  A couple of years ago, I remember reading on my end of term student ratings of instruction a couple of comments responding to my start of term advice that to do well students should be spending a minimum of two hours studying outside of class for every hour spent inside of class. The comments amounted to shock and horror that an instructor, that an educational institution would have such expectations of their students. That such expectations were unreasonable because students had a life outside of school. When I discussed this with my colleagues, the more recent ones to the teaching profession shared the students' shock and horror - a 2:1 ratio of outside:inside course work was clearly unreasonable.

When did this change? When did the understanding change that learning does not require time on task? All of the evidence I have read suggests that academic success depends upon time on task and that one of the best things that instructors can do for their students is to encourage their time on task on educationally purposeful activities. This includes doing homework (reading the text, doing practice problems), discussing class material in a study group, preparing lab reports, conducting research for term papers, spending time in the studio painting or drawing, spending time rehearsing lines, doing the grunt work of memorizing vocabulary and grammatical rules for language acquisition, memorizing the chemical formulae for functional groups, practicing conversing in the language of the discipline.

Does anyone think that three hours per week in-class is sufficient to master their coursework? Where is this resistance to the sage advice of two hours outside of class for every hour inside of class coming from? Who thinks that students do not need to spend time doing the hard messy work of learning on their own time outside of class?

In the resources below it seems like the 2:1 adage is still prevalent. But I do like Lolita Paff's Faculty Focus article and the USU estimate study hours worksheet to be a much better-nuanced consideration of this issue. Bottom line from those two resources is that it depends upon the type and difficulty of the course. But it still looks to me that it ends up being approximately 2:1 but that the hours outside of class may be differentially allocated depending upon the constellation of courses in which a student is enrolled for a given term. Something that we can do to circumvent the student complaint that they did not perform as they thought they would on an exam given the amount of time spent studying for the exam is to discuss efficient vs weak study/learning strategies. Many students still use passive learning strategies (e.g. reading over their notes, using flashcards, reading the text with a highlighter in hand) rather than active learning strategies (e.g. rewriting/reorganizing their notes, engaging in retrieval practice, reading the text with pencil and paper in hand, spacing rather than massing their study, and mixing their study time by attending to different courses). I have found that having this conversation and having students think about their approach to studying often transforms a mediocre student into a high-performing student. Many students have found the book Make It Stick to be an invaluable resource.


University website resources