Teaching Innovations

Active Learning: A Critical Examination

Daniel D. Trifan, March 1997

The first difficulty encountered by an individual attempting to evaluate active learning is determining the point at which learning becomes “active” and not merely “passive.” In Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom, Chet Meyers and Thomas B. Jones, assert that in the traditional lecture method, “teachers actively present information and students passively receive it.”1 The lecture cannot in and of itself provide “active” learning, but “talk by teachers can be a valuable prelude to active learning.” In other words, only when teachers fall silent can active learning truly begin. Meyers and Jones also maintain, however, that the four components of active learning are “talking and listening, reading, writing, and reflecting.” Considering that three of these activities should be occurring while the teacher is talking, the lecture method is actually passive only if the student is not listening, taking notes, or thinking about what the instructor is saying. One can conclude, therefore, that the division between active and passive learning is largely artificial, and bears little, if any, relevance to the greater question of improving students’ retention of class material and performance on exams.

The discipline of history presents special circumstances and problems for students because the understanding of history is a linear and cumulative process (i.e., because history deals with the evolution of ideas, concepts, and events over time, comprehension of the basic features of a historical period becomes a prerequisite for grasping more complex concepts). In other words, if students do not have a strong grasp of the fundamentals, they will not be able to participate in meaningful discussion of the subject. Because history is also a fact-based discipline, personal opinions and feelings are meaningful only when held within a framework of the facts.

What “Active Learning” Promotes

Even a cursory examination of the existing literature on active learning reveals that the vast majority of it has been produced by people from two disciplines, namely, education and psychology. Much of this literature appears to be devoted to the popularization of several ideas, which I will examine in turn.

Lecturing is counterproductive. Of all the arguments promulgated by the proponents of active learning, this is the most prominent. “What could be worse,” asks Alison King in an article in College Teaching, “than the never-ending lecture delivered by a ‘talking-head’ instructor? Presiding over a mind-numbing treadmill of canned responses has little to do with teaching.”2 What could be worse, in my opinion, would be to abandon a technique of proven value in favor of one whose utility remains essentially unproven. As John P. Murray and Judy I. Murray point out in another issue of College Teaching, the lecture “can also be an uplifting and enlightening experience” if it is properly prepared and delivered, and the amount of benefit a student receives from a lecture is directly proportional to the amount of effort the student is willing to make.3 After all, the lecture method has been around for centuries and has proven remarkably effective in helping to develop educated individuals. While it may be true that the lecture originated because of a shortage of readily available books during the Middle Ages, one reason for its success appears to be the ability of instructors, using experience and knowledge, to summarize complex topics clearly and cogently. The lecture method has been around far longer than the ideas of those who now wish to abandon it in favor of newer concepts of doubtful validity or intellectual substance.

Factual knowledge is less important than “in-depth understanding.” This idea is prominently represented in the active-learning literature. “Expectations are raised for all students,” argues Peggy Odell Gonder in an article in Education Digest, “when the focus is on in-depth understanding of events and ideas rather than on learning dates and facts.”4 Perhaps in some disciplines “in-depth understanding” and “facts” conflict with one another, but history is most assuredly not one of them. Imposing an artificial division between “facts” and “knowledge” displays a degree of ignorance about the nature of learning that can only be described as appalling. This ignorance is further demonstrated by Gonder when she extols the virtues of Socratic questioning: “Instead of focusing on facts, which are memory-based and favor a certain type of learner, the seminars ask wide-open questions related to conceptual understanding” (Gonder, 19). In other words, concentration on facts is discriminatory because knowledge of facts, being “memory-based,” is not equally held by all. The solution to this dilemma is to ask only questions that have no right or wrong answers, thus allowing all students to feel good about their performance. Unqualified endorsement of unsupported assertions such as Gonder’s impedes, rather than enhances, attempts to examine these questions in a scholarly manner.

The role of the instructor should be diminished. Publications on active learning are replete with references to the role of the teacher doing little more than acting as a “facilitator,” a cardinal tenet of the doctrine known as “outcome-based” methodology. “Essentially,” writes Alison King, “the professor’s role is to facilitate students’ interaction with the material and with each other in their knowledge-producing endeavor” (King, 32). One is compelled to ask why we should bother to hire a Ph.D. to teach, if all that is required is to “facilitate” students getting their information and understanding from the textbook and from classmates? Shouldn’t any moderately educated person be able to perform this function adequately? Moreover, if students are expected to learn primarily from source materials and from each other, why should they bother going to college at all? It seems almost tautological to pose these questions, but they may not have occurred to the educator who wrote the statement quoted above. It appears, therefore, that one potential utility for instructors is to draw attention to the lapses in logic and intellectual reasoning embedded in ideas such as these.

The classroom should be “democratized.” Another idea prominently represented in the active-learning literature is that the classroom should be “democratized,” that instructors should “share control” with students. In some cases, this idea is expressed symbolically, as in Jonathan Zophy’s suggestion in Perspectives that “all the class seats should be placed in a circle, with the teacher sitting among the students as a peer and not as an obvious group leader” (“Student-Centered Teaching,” Perspectives, February 1991, 20). Another historian, Peter Frederick, has advocated in this newsletter free-associating by students on the key word in a course title, because through this pattern “themes, categories, and even metaphors or catchy phrases emerge which can create student ownership by becoming the operative organizing concepts for the course” (“Motivating Students by Active Learning in the History Classroom,” Perspectives, October 1993, 15). According to a study by Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison, if a teacher is able to “share control,” it would “enable students to become actors playing major roles in their own education.”5 In support of this idea, the authors quote Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern educational theory, who wrote in 1951:

If instead of focusing all our interest on the teacher—What shall I teach? How can I prove that I have taught it? How can I “cover” all that I should teach? —we focused our interest on the student, the questions and the issues would all be different. Suppose we asked, what are his purposes in this course, what does he wish to learn, how can we facilitate his learning and growth? A very different type of education would ensue (Bonwell and Eison, 63).

Too many fail to grasp the obvious fallacy in this argument, as Thomas Sowell wrote in response to a similar statement from Rogers:

It is hard to imagine how a small child, first learning the alphabet, can appreciate the full implications of learning those particular 26 abstract symbols in an arbitrarily fixed order. Yet . . . lifelong access to the intellectual treasures of centuries depend[s] on his mastery of these symbols. . . . There is not the slightest reason in the world why a small child should be expected to grasp the significance of all this. Instead, he learns these symbols and this order because his parents and teachers want him to learn it—not because he sees its “relevance.”6

To say that students are qualified to determine a priori what they should learn “is to assume at the outset the very competence which education is supposed to produce as an end result” (Sowell, 91).

The argument in favor of “sharing control” would be more persuasive had questions such as those posed by Sowell been addressed clearly and logically. Moreover, many of these ideas have already been incorporated into primary and secondary education, in areas such as “affective education,” “holistic education,” “transactional analysis,” and “values clarification.” Unfortunately, a “very different type of education” has indeed ensued, one that may in fact have contributed to the decline in measurable standards of achievement.

A Few Useful Suggestions

Despite the fact that much of what has been written on active learning can only be described as intellectually questionable, advocates have advanced some methods whose functions are not overtly destructive of educational standards and quality. Some of these methods, however, merely take concepts that have been in use for decades, if not centuries, repackage them in currently fashionable jargon, and present them as exciting new discoveries. One such example is “performance assessment.”

According to David Sweet, in an article in Education Research Consumer Guide, this technique is “a form of testing that requires students to perform a task rather than select an answer from a ready-made list.” Sweet goes on to explain that [p]erformance assessment requires students to structure and apply information, and thereby helps to engage students in . . . [active] learning.”7 In history classes, this testing method is known as the essay question. History professors have been aware of the value of essay questions for nearly as long as history has existed as a discipline.

Some of the ideas presented in the active-learning literature that promise at least some use for the teaching of history include the reaction paper, case studies, and “post-holing,” an in-depth examination of a narrowly focused topic. The reaction, or one-minute, paper can prove useful if it is assigned as a response to a film, reading assignment, or presentation of some type.

Nonetheless, case studies and post-holing present some difficult problems. Although any sort of in-depth examination of a subject is useful, provided that the student has an adequate grasp of fundamentals, the time required for in-depth studies must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, this usually means the sacrifice of some course material. And because history is a linear and cumulative discipline, it is not advisable to end, say, a 19th-century history course in 1865, and then expect students to be able to continue with a 20th-century course without having learned what went on in the missing 35 years. The problem would be compounded if these methods were to be attempted in general-studies history courses, which cover hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A Solution from the Proponents of Active Learning

Some proponents of active learning would like to implement the methodology at once, despite little evidence that it works. Psychologist David J. Bredehoft admitted in an article in College Teaching that “there is not much research to date on the effects of cooperative learning in college and university education,” but he nonetheless argued that “recent work on its effect in primary and secondary schools is relevant.”8 One of the major arguments of primary and secondary school educators in recent years has been that children and adults learn differently, which is why many of the existing methodologies in primary and secondary schools were introduced in the first place. In addition, the performance level of the average precollege student has been mostly declining during the past three decades. This fact casts immediate doubt on the methods used for evaluating new theories and should result in higher education adopting a sense of healthy skepticism regarding any theory that claims that drastic improvement of student performance will result from instituting such measures.

The need for further research and study to define the effect of active learning is stated repeatedly in the literature. According to Bonwell and Eison, for example, “the entire field of research on college teaching is underdeveloped . . . most published articles on active learning in professional journals of higher education lack either a theoretical framework or a scientific foundation, [and] most articles the authors have located have been primarily descriptive pieces rather than empirical investigations” (Bonwell and Eison, 76). As a result, the authors maintain that convictions that active learning is a superior method “should carry no more weight than the personal convictions of other faculty who favor traditional instructional approaches” (Bonwell and Eison, 5). At the same time, in the course of delineating strategies for the implementation of active learning, the authors announce that “if faculty, faculty developers, administrators, and educational researchers join in a coordinated and consistent effort to understand and implement active learning in the classroom, an educational revolution will occur in the next decade” (Bonwell and Eison, 80). In other words, it seems that the outcome of research has been decided before that research has been performed. This resembles nothing so much as the “sentence first, verdict afterward” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and betrays what is at the heart of the scientific method, as well as of critical thinking.

Consequently, I am inclined to disagree when Bonwell and Eison state that the principal reasons why faculty “have not eagerly embraced recommendations to employ active learning” are the desire for stability, the tendency to “resist change,” the “discomfort” and “anxiety” created by new ideas, and the “self-enchantment” of faculty. Moreover, I would assert, this methodology has not been eagerly embraced by faculty because academics who are seriously committed to the maintenance of quality in their disciplines simply do not rush headlong into the unqualified adoption of fads that are not supported by evidence, logic, or common sense and that are promoted by those whose thought does not seem to possess any of the attributes this methodology promises to instill in students. As Sowell states in his answer to Carl Rogers, “In no other field of endeavor besides education would such reasoning even be taken seriously, much less be made the basis of institutional policy” (Sowell, 91).

To be sure, some of the methods suggested by active-learning advocates are already familiar to history teachers, such as book reviews, discussion, and reliance on essay examinations. Other methods, however, present serious difficulties to those who are dedicated to employing more traditional teaching methods. The Socratic method, for example, can be used only with students already possessing a certain amount of knowledge. Because not all entry-level college students have had adequate training in history in high school, the Socratic method would not work successfully with all students. Moreover,  in the eyes of some active learning proponents, the Socratic method is best used to elicit opinions and feelings, which in history have no meaning except when viewed in the context of an understanding of facts, concepts, and themes.

Another active-learning idea of doubtful use is the cooperative student project. In the words of Bredehoft, it appears to be based on the idea that “the most important lesson for students in any discipline is the knowledge and skill of how to get along and work with others” (Bredehoft, 122). I could not disagree more. Our most important function as history teachers is to instill a fundamental understanding of history, not the arcane and recondite niceties of “group process.” “How to get along and work with others” could just as well be taught by working on a homecoming float as in a class in which students are supposed to be learning an academic discipline.

Another aspect of cooperative projects is that a group of students work together on a project, and all receive the same grade. My experience is that in group situations, one or two students do all the work and the others contribute next to nothing. It would be extremely unfair to give everyone the same grade if all did not participate equally in the work. In addition, cooperative projects are not applicable in the least to the study of history. In history, the student engages in a one-on-one relationship with the material, and the success or failure of this relationship is reflected in the course grade.

Too often, professional educators fail to realize that education does not take place in the classroom, as Sowell states. “What has happened in the professor’s mind before he sets foot in the classroom, and what happens in the students’ minds after they have left it and pursued their assignment—that is what determines the quality of the education” (Sowell, 219).

New, but Not Improved

In sum, an examination of the current active learning literature indicates that, in the words of Groucho Marx, “there is less here than meets the eye.” There are plenty of new ideas, but most of them are either intellectually deficient, overtly destructive to standards and quality, or irrelevant to the discipline of history. The few new ideas that actually possess some intellectual merit offer severe difficulties in terms of available class time. As history teachers, we are well aware of the intellectual needs of our students, as well as the particular constraints presented by our discipline.

When currently fashionable ideas such as active learning are scrutinized objectively, and shown to be replete with logical incoherence, methodological sloppiness, and meretricious claims, the response from proponents of these ideas is, all too often, the same: “psychoanalyze the critics, accuse them of negativism, challenge their honesty even if you cannot challenge their facts. In short, do anything to avoid confronting the truth.”9

—Daniel D. Trifan is associate professor of Soviet and modern European history at Missouri Western State College, St. Joseph, Missouri.

Notes

1. Chet Meyers and Thomas B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 1993), 19, 21. All further references to Meyers and Jones in this article refer to this publication.

2. Alison King, “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side,” College Teaching 41 (winter 1993): 30. All further references to King in this article refer to this publication.

3. John P. Murray and Judy I. Murray, “How Do I Lecture Thee,” College Teaching 40 (summer 1992): 113.

4. Peggy Odell Gonder, “Getting Kids Out of the Muddle of Middle-Ability Education,” Education Digest (September 1993): 20. All further references to Gonder in this article refer to this publication.

5. Charles C. Bonwell and James A. Eison, Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report no. 1 (Washington, D.C., 1991), 63. All further references to Bonwell and Eison in this article refer to this publication.

6. Thomas Sowell, Inside American Higher Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas (Free Press, 1993), 90–1. Unless otherwise noted, all further references to Sowell in this article refer to this publication.

7. David Sweet, “Performance Assessment,” Education Research Consumer Guide (November 1992): 1.

8. David J. Bredehoft, “Cooperative Controversies in the Classroom,” College Teaching 39 (summer 1991): 122. All further references to Bredehoft in this article refer to this publication.

9. Thomas Sowell, “School of Hard Knocks,” New York Post, 26 July 1994.