It seems like people learn better when they know why the teacher does what they do, so today I’m going to write you this note about why I’m not teaching our calculus class lecture-style.
I used to lecture in my calculus classes. Every day, all class period. I think my lectures were pretty good and in fact one of the things I do outside of teaching is that I get invited a lot of places to give talks, and they seem to go pretty well. It was fun, actually, teaching class with lectures. And it was easy; lectures are completely predictable and very easy to prepare for. It was how I was taught so it seemed like the right way to teach. But some years ago, the mathematical community started thinking seriously about finding better ways to teach than straight lecturing, and as a result I tried “flipping” my classes, and never looked back.
Part of what “flipping” means (also called “Active Learning” or “Inquiry-Based Learning”, depending on how you do it and who you talk to) is that students do the easier parts of the reading before class, so that during class we can focus on clearing up more challenging questions and having students work together on problems in small groups. It turns out that hands-on active learning can be much more effective than passive lecture-watching; here’s an article from Science about it:
Of course, you know all about active learning because we’re doing it in class right now. And you might think that it is frustrating, difficult, or even awful. I know that you might think this because when I switched to active learning strategies about ten years ago, my student evaluations took a nose dive. I used to get all “Excellents” and suddenly I was getting a lot of really mixed reviews. This situation is pretty common with active learning; for example, read this article from Vitae:
The funny thing is, the most common complaint I got from unhappy students was that they would say “We had to learn everything ourselves, she didn’t teach us!” This was usually followed by comments that implied I wasn’t doing the “work” of teaching/lecturing, but was instead making the students do all the “work” themselves in class.
Here’s why that’s funny: Because lecturing is SO EASY, while teaching an unpredicatable class in which you try to help six groups doing work on different blackboards come to a meaningful place and then somehow turn that into something to wrap up at the board for the class is not! As a teacher, it takes way more work and preparation to figure out what students’ groups should work on, how to handle random tangents and misunderstandings on the fly, and even how to make the basic logistics of the class work out. It’s also a lot more fun, so I’m not complaining; but I want you all to know that pulling off “students teaching themselves” is a hard trick, not a sign of laziness on the teacher’s part. In fact, on the very few class days here and there when I ended up spending most of the class lecturing, it’s actually because I couldn’t figure out how to make that day’s topic more “active” so I reverted to the tried-and-true lecture style for that lesson!
But none of that really matters, because the important thing is this: With active learning, I can help students every day in real time with their work and give them instant feedback. The students are learning MORE. Fewer students fall through the cracks and get left behind. And students learn how to DO things and TALK about things instead of just passively watching a lecture. They learn how to struggle and fight and actually figure things out, which is a much more permanent type of learning than the typical watch-repeat-forget cycle of passive learning. They learn how to learn things on their own rather than wait to be told. Yeah, how to “learn it all themselves”, even.
I don’t really care how high my evaluations are, but I do care about what people learn in my class, so to me the switch to active learning was a massive improvement. Nobody likes diets or budgets or walking up stairs but all of those things are good for you too, even if they cause people to complain. And again, I’m not the only one that thinks active learning might be worth a shot; here’s one more article, from The Conversation:
Of course, our calculus class is also frustrating, difficult, and yes, even awful for students simply because calculus is hard, and learning it is difficult however it happens. I just wanted you all to know that we aren’t just messing around in class or wasting our time; the time you spend confused, frustrated, and stuck on problems (and then, hopefully, getting unstuck) is extremely valuable, even though it can be difficult. Good luck and let me know if you need any help or advice!