Avoid Passive Learning

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To promote in-depth understanding, avoid passive learning situations where a lone teacher mostly lectures while learners take notes.


Traditional adult courses, especially those at the beginning level, involve a teacher who lectures and writes on the board as students take notes. In this way the teacher is merely transmitting information to a receptive yet passive audience. This is fine for rote learning but not particularly conducive promoting to deep understanding.

What is problematic with this traditional arrangement is that it runs counter to the prevailing view in cognitive psychology that learning is interpretative and dependent upon students' prior knowledge as well as epistemologies of learning (deWinstanly & Bjork, 2002; Stolovitch & Keeps, 2002). The traditional lecture arrangement encourages shallow processing and prevents students from actively engaging the material.

Although deeper comprehension results from active processing and meaningful elaborations during learning, much of classroom discourse is devoid of such elements (Graesser, Person, & Hu, 2002). Very few questions asked by teachers elicit deep reasoning processes, such as integration or synthesis, on the part of students.

Effective classroom discourse is a two-way street which also involves students raising relevant and thoughtful questions. Graesser et al. (2002) describe an interactive software program that models teacher-student exchanges and teaches students to ask deep-reasoning questions themselves, which improves their comprehension of the material either during lecture or reading. This enhances students' metacognitive abilities in recognizing where deficiencies in their understanding may need to be remedied.

Large-lecture learning settings are often coupled with another problematic instructional practice: multiple-choice tests. These tests are usually used as a one shot deal (e.g., a midterm or final examination) that provide little guidance on how to improve future learning. Furthermore, as a form of a recognition-based test, they do not reflect true understanding of the material and provide little feedback to students about their how much they have learned. Students may achieve a high score on such a test but may not be able to apply what they have learned in some other context (i.e., failing to demonstrate transfer of learning). Thus a high score is not indicative of quality learning and may mask deficiencies in understanding.

Testing is not an optional element in effective instruction. Usually testing is seen as an afterthought only to be considered after creating the curriculum. Wiggins (1998) argues that when curriculum is designed with both learning goals and assessment in mind, the content presented is more likely to valuable, hence more likely to be motivating. Learning is no longer seen as remembering facts in isolation but integrative with learning objectives and applicable to contexts outside of the classroom.

The demonstration for this principle is currently being developed.

Educational Applications

Promote active learning:

Involve students as much as possible during lectures. Ask probing questions that may or may not trigger an overt response. The idea is to cue to students to actively process the information being presented. Encourage thoughtful questioning by students which allows them to reveal their understanding, or lack of, and you to provide necessary elaboration or correction. When testing, use tests that probe for conceptual understanding. Use tests not only as an evaluation instrument, rather a diagnostic learning tool that provides students with feedback on their learning.

Suggested Readings

deWinstanly, P. A., & Bjork, R. A. (2002). Successful lecturing: Presenting information in ways that engage effective processing. In D. F. Halpern & M. D. Hakel (Eds.), New Directions in Teaching and Learning (no. 89): Applying the Science of Learning to University Teaching, (pp. 19-32). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This chapter presents lecture strategies that lead to student engagement: focusing students' attention, elaborating on material, and requiring students to retrieve and generate answers from memory.

Graesser, A. C., Person, N.k., & Hu, X. (2002). Improving comprehension through discourse processing. In D. F. Halpern & M. D. Hakel (Eds.), New Directions in Teaching and Learning (no. 89): Applying the Science of Learning to University Teaching, (pp. 33-44). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This chapter discusses using discourse analysis to promote deep understanding in a number of educational settings.

Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. K. (2002). Telling ain't training. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training & Development Press. Although this book focuses on improving training in organizational settings, the empirically-derived learning principles it discusses are relevant to instruction in educational settings. The book is written in an engaging style and offers many interactive demonstrations, including how learning is an interpretative process and testing as a learning tool.

Wiggins, G. P. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessment to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. A practical handbook full of recommendations and guidelines in creating assessment tools that enhance learning. It makes the case that the primary purpose of tests should not be merely to audit student performance but to improve it.