From the Viewpoints column in the March 1997 Perspectives

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

Roland Marchand, March 1997

What most dismays me about our performance as academic historians, a concern quickened by debates over modes of teaching, is our lack of acute curiosity about the process of learning itself. We like to think that we are doing more than merely placing a plethora of “facts” before students (an activity that surely can be more efficiently accomplished through a text). Most of us aspire to accomplish something more complex than the encouragement of rote memorization. (Trifan’s choice of a quote about the learning of the alphabet as his model for college instruction in history must surely seem disheartening to many.)

But we are apt to give too little attention to the relation between our teaching methods and student acquisition of the skills we envisage: critical thinking, comprehension of the formative forces at work in a given era, an understanding of the complexities of the relations between historical agents and their environment, and a grasp of how the histories we read have been made. In reflecting upon my own lecturing, I am troubled to recognize how often I wind up telling students what to think about the materials we have just covered—providing them with “conclusions” rather than “empowering” them to become their own historians. The latter is not impossible, as I am gradually learning. But the former is what, I fear, “lecturing” too often becomes.

Perhaps the most valuable purpose that can be served by the sometimes tendentious debates about “active learning” would be to deflect them into an inquiry into that bête noire of many apostles of active learning, the lecture itself. From a purely practical standpoint, most historians will do most of their undergraduate teaching, not to seminar-sized groups of students, but to audiences of 75 to 300 students in what we conventionally recognize as lecture formats. If we wish to make learning more “active,” to involve students in a more participatory way in their own education, then—in most cases—we will have to design our courses so that lecture-hall meetings lead to an optimum of engaged learning. This means that we cannot rest easy with the notion that a lecture is a lecture is a lecture—that is, an occasion that we can expect invariably to assume a certain generic form: an authority spews forth information and members of the audience prepare, as best they can, to relay it back.

In prodding myself to rethink the uses of the classroom session, I have found it most energizing to challenge the “a lecture is a lecture” presumption through metaphor: a lecture is a detective story, a map, an experiment, a tapestry, a jigsaw puzzle, an excavation, a conversation. The next step, in each case, is to visualize what such a session would “look like” if the metaphor were embraced as fully as possible. Could I carry out an experiment or demonstration in front of the class in the way that a physicist might? Could I script some kind of conversation or debate with the class? Could I challenge the lecture audience to put together, themselves, the pieces of a puzzle that we etch out and rotate around to suggest their various contours? In each case, could I clearly envisage the learning process (presumably “active”) that I expect to be taking place in students’ minds?

For me, this process often leads next to a consideration of what kind of “document” or “exercise” I can best place in students’ hands for them to “work on” during the lecture session. They will still, presumably, take notes, perhaps on the (photocopied) document itself or in their notebooks. But they will also be challenged to try to move a step ahead of the instructor in forecasting the conclusion to a story or the solution to a puzzle. Perhaps time should be scripted into the class period for students to pursue these challenges—individually, or in very small groups. Whether the “document” is a political cartoon, statistics on immigration or birth rates, indexes of production of various commodities, a segment of a speech or a political party platform, the words from a ballad, or a diagram that hypothesizes the steps in some historical process (say, the progress of a reform movement or the conditions for revolution), the very act of placing “something to work on” in the students’ hands seems to push the level of learning activity beyond that of note taking, even in the largest of lecture halls. Moreover, it tends to turn the focus of the entire group on the document, not the lecturer. In my experience, this stimulates the raising of questions.

Another useful challenge to the “I talk, you listen” conception and format for every lecture session is to ask what other purpose such a meeting with students might play in forwarding the purposes of the class. For me, such purposes often include the involvement of students in experiencing the processes of evaluating evidence and writing history. The “meat” of the course lies outside the lecture period—as Thomas Sowell suggests in one of the many quotes that Trifan gleans from Sowell’s polemics: “What has happened in the professor’s mind before he [sic] 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.”

If my assignments include a variety of exercises—unearthing primary and secondary sources in the library, analyzing a collection (photocopied) of disparate segments from documents and writing the history of a very specific event on the basis of those documents, or engaging in more active consideration of the elements of good research and writing by drafting a critique of another student’s rough draft of the course paper—then some lecture sessions can probably best be spent in explaining the “how to” of such exercises, responding to questions, and drawing out the desired insights from the exercises by challenging the class with hypothetical instances of problems they are likely to encounter in the process of carrying out these assignments.

One experience that has stimulated my attention to teaching methods has been interaction during summer institutes with those who teach history at other age levels. University instructors, I believe, are apt to assume too great a change in the processes of learning between 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds, or between 16-year-olds and 20-year-olds. Teachers at the K–12 levels also tend to be more conscious of the different ways in which students learn and the value of thinking about how, given the range and depth of their life experience thus far, they can best discover a compelling personal point of access to the subject matter of a course. The challenge for college instructors is to discover ways to translate methods that have proven effective within smaller groups at lower age levels into tactics compatible with larger classes and more complex issues and questions. If we believe that students, by the time they enter the university, should be ready to engage in more sophisticated analysis of historical phenomena, then surely their role should become more, rather than less, active.

Each time we explore a new strategy or methodology, as Trifan appropriately cautions us, we need to press ourselves to consider how we will assess the results. Has this approach really enhanced effective learning? Of course, such tests will be no more uniform than our various conceptions of the kinds of learning at which we are aiming. But curiosity about results and learning processes is crucial; this is one of the most neglected elements in much teaching carried out through the traditional lecture. Trifan rightly takes to task those advocates of various techniques of active learning who seem to pay little rigorous attention to the actual results of their methods. But his own complacent assumption that optimum learning must have been taking place through traditional lecture methods—simply because they have “been around for centuries”—is equally appalling. As the sociologist Hugh Duncan observed in Symbols and Society, “Each moment of significant communication is a moment of deep anxiety. Like the stricken actor trembling with stage fright, we go before significant audiences in fear and anxiety.” If we consider the undergraduates in our courses to be “significant audiences,” then we would do well to nettle our complacency. We could do with less pontificating and more experimentation and inquiry.

—Roland Marchand is professor of history at the University of California at Davis and co-director of the state of California’s Area Three History and Cultures Project, which brings K–12 teachers and university faculty together to exchange ideas about successful teaching strategies. Marchand is also author of Creating the Corporate Soul (Univ. of California Press, forthcoming).