From the Teaching Innovations column in the March 1997 Perspectives

Comment on Daniel D. Trifan's "Active Learning: A Critical Examination"

James W. Oberly, March 1997

I write in defense of active learning in the classroom. This does not mean that I also rush to defend every utterance written in defense of active learning, particularly the sillier ones that Daniel Trifan has unearthed in his readings among the education journals. The literature he cites will certainly not dispel any prejudices among historians against education jargon. In reaction to some of the outlandish claims made on behalf of active learning, Trifan wants to hold fast to the lecture. His defense of the traditional may sit well with some readers; most of us, no doubt, succeeded at taking notes and writing exams in college lecture courses on the way to a profession in history.

Still, I believe that Trifan has misread some of the literature on active learning and shown a tendency to take the most extreme calls for active learning as the future that awaits us as history teachers, unless we fight against it at every curriculum committee. Trifan could profit by being more open toward calls for more study of how learning takes place at the collegiate level. He castigates education writers for lacking data to support their advocacy of active learning. His question, however, can just as easily be turned around: where is the research evidence showing that the lecture method is the most effective means of teaching history to college students? I am unaware of any substantial body of such research, even if academics have been lecturing for many centuries.

As a starting point, therefore, I hope Trifan and I can agree with the education theorists that we do need specific studies of student learning in the history classroom. Surely, there are other historians, like me, trained in cliometrics, who look at our grade distributions each semester, wonder about the numbers, and tinker with the same course the next time out to make it more effective. I’ll spare readers the regressions and coefficients from my wondering and tinkering and, instead, try to engage Trifan’s larger arguments about the nature of student learning and faculty teaching in the classroom, particularly in the survey classroom where the great majority of our lower-division students are not history majors.

Role of the Lecture

Trifan takes issue with educators who attack lectures and lecturers for delivering a “passive” brand of education, and he counters with the contention that lectures require the development of good listening skills on the part of students. Let’s avoid a discussion of skill building among general education students; that is a different topic. Instead, I want to call attention to some of the problems I see with an exclusive reliance on lecturing in history classes. I contend that the lecture mode is static, if not passive, when it is the only method used by an instructor over the length of a semester. Students are not well served by sole reliance on the lecture, not just because many students are weak auditory learners, but more because the unvarying format stifles student development. By this I mean that a course that starts with a lecture and ends with a lecture does not challenge general education students to go beyond listening and preparing for the next exam.

General education requirements at many campuses are such that students need only take one course in history. If it is mine they take, I want them to have some working knowledge of how historians do history, just as the chemists want introductory chemistry students to work in the laboratory. In practice, general education students at my campus, like those elsewhere, enter my class underprepared to do history. Consequently, I use the semester to build their capabilities to understand and apply historical concepts. The last few weeks in my class are a lot different from the first two, because the students take an increasingly active role as they gradually develop, and prove their competence to do so.

Role of Factual Knowledge in History Teaching

Trifan is rightly appalled by the article by Peggy Odell Gonder that he cites from Education Digest. Education specialists who criticize history teaching for encouraging the rote learning of dates and rulers are themselves a pretty fat target. However, let us not stop the discussion at a denunciation of the new Know-Nothings; few college-level history teachers fit the stereotype attacked by Gonder. Nearly every history teacher tries to teach big concepts based on factual knowledge. The question at issue involves the connection to active learning in the classroom. I approach the problem in the following sequence.

First, I introduce students to the four or five big themes running through U.S. history; next, I ask them to read the textbook to find the big themes and supporting examples; and finally, I have them examine original documents and identify the continuing themes. This process  admittedly takes time away from my lectures. But I learned some years ago that I could never cover all the material in a survey class, and I much prefer to have students develop their ability to apply historical concepts and do history as the course develops. The methods I use  include lecturing, but also small-group discussions, class brainstorming, formal debates, and—the high point of the semester—a cooperative group project of the type that Trifan derides.

Student “Ownership”

Regarding Trifan’s remarks about the role of the instructor and the concept of democracy in the classroom, I believe that he has wrongly conflated the literature on active learning and student ownership with a call for mob rule. ”Ownership” is admittedly yet another education buzzword, possibly lifted from the general cultural debate over rights and responsibilities. It has as its goal encouraging students to take an active responsibility for learning the material in a history class, to go beyond attendance, note taking, and exam writing. The Zophy and Frederick Perspectives pieces that Trifan cites advise instructors to use class time at the beginning of the semester, and perhaps at the beginning of each class, to encourage students to commit to a shared responsibility for learning.

It is my experience that general education students often arrive in history survey classes with a negative sense of ownership; they resent the cost of tuition they and their families are paying for a class they don’t want to take. I hope to encourage a different sort of ownership, one that challenges students to become educated men and women by learning something of their country’s history, and to take some responsibility for making each class rewarding. This is not democracy in the sense that Trifan fears: a cacophony of unlettered students making decisions about the curriculum. Neither is it the sink-or-swim approach to student learning that characterized my undergraduate education. I do not believe that the instructor’s role is at all diminished in designing and implementing active learning projects in the classroom. I cannot rearrange the bolted desks in my lecture auditorium in a circle, but I do not think my role is undermined by occasionally turning over the lectern to a student report or debate.

Differences in Learning

Trifan rightly warns instructors in higher education to be skeptical of claims coming from elementary and secondary schools that active learning works, and that it can also work at the college level. I doubt that the ongoing decline in the “performance level of the average precollege student” can be blamed, even in part, on active learning in the public schools, but I do acknowledge that Trifan has raised a troubling point. In referring to the differences in learning between children and adults, he has also unwittingly raised an issue about the student body of the modern U.S. university. The comprehensive state universities and community colleges where four-fifths of U.S. collegians attend history classes consist of quite diverse student bodies, and if there is one thing the education specialists can tell history instructors, it is that students learn in many different ways. It is in this sense that mixing lectures and active learning projects in each class period has the potential to reach more students than a reliance on one method alone.

Group Projects

I have learned to trust students to do good work on group projects, in part through the school of hard knocks. I once taught a large section of the U.S. survey and noticed after one exam that seven students had written essays that mentioned the “Alien and Sedation Acts.” That howler provided some good fun to be shared up and down the hallway with colleagues, but I wondered how the seven had gone awry. I did not actually mention the Federalist legislation in class, so they could not have heard me slur the word. I finally established that the seven had formed a study group and had crammed together before each exam, and one member in the group had mentioned the need to know the Sedation Act for the test. The others dutifully followed.

The point I took away from this experience was that in large lecture classes, students of today will do their work in groups, whether in class under the leadership of the instructor, or out of class under the occasional misguidance of a peer. In short, I have serious doubts about Trifan’s statement that in “history, the student engages in a one-on-one relationship with the material.” I prefer to take an active role in shaping the groups that will form, with or without me, both for small group discussion of the text readings and for collaborative research projects involving quantitative analysis of census data at the county and town level. Students are not in my class to learn group behavior, but I do believe that an active use of group learning can improve their chances of understanding the history material I have emphasized. If there is one slogan that sums up my use of active learning in the history classroom, it is “ask a lot of the students, and get a lot.”

—James W. Oberly is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire where he has taught since 1983. He is the author of Sixty Million Acres: American Veteransand the Public Lands before the Civil War (1990), and co-compiler of United States History: A Bibliography of the New Writings on American History (1995). His survey course syllabus is available on the World Wide Web at http:// www.uwec.edu/Academic/History/hist201.htm.