Friday, February 4, 2011

Participatory Learning

Vin60, Flickr
"Brick wall

Students learn by participating in their own learning process (otherwise, do they learn by sitting in class as still as bricks?) The Tenn TLC will be addressing participation in two upcoming workshops: one on assessment and one on lecturing.

What do these topics have to do with participatory learning?

First, lecturing is a primary mode of teaching, especially in large classes of undergraduates.  Donald Bligh's oft-cited study of lecturing (What's the Use of Lectures?) assesses decades of research to determine how well the lecture mode meets "four logically distinct kinds of objective: 1. The acquisition of information, 2. The promotion of thought, 3. Changes in attitudes, and 4. Behavioral skills."  Of these four objectives, research shows that lecture only meets the first: acquisition of knowledge.

Bligh concludes:
It does not follow that teachers should never lecture or even that the time allocated to lecturing on a timetable should not exceed that allocated to discussion. That is a matter of judgement in particular cases.... But the acquisition of knowledge from lectures or any other method, is not an end in itself. It follows that lecturing should always be pursued as a means to some other end.
This conclusion has far reaching implications for lecturers' attitudes, techniques and preparation. In particular almost every lecture must be prepared and given with a clear idea of how it is to be combined with discussion or some other method. ...Planning a series of lectures, even by visiting speakers, without planning their follow up, is a useless activity - unless you have touching faith in the subsequent initiative of the audience to do that job for you.

What about the other three objectives:  promotion of thought, changes in attitudes, and behavioral skills?  We can ask the question, how can we get students to participate in their own learning, by asking about these objectives.  How can we change behavior, so that students learn more deeply?  How can we change attitudes, so that students value their learning?  How can we change the ways students think, so that they think critically and creatively?
With a generation of students driven to perform on standardized testing, on top of the grading system, we face students who learn mostly for extrinsic rewards.  And we know that extrinsic rewards do not insure deep, lasting learning (Bains 2009).   We must reverse the trend and offer students intrinsic rewards.  To do that, they have to participate.

This leads to our second workshop: assessment, in particular, classroom (formative "in process") assessment.  How will we know if attitudes, behaviors, and thinking processes are changing during a semester if we do not ask the students?  We can tell to some extent by the product (homework, quizzes and such) and we may be able to observe attitudinal and behavioral changes, but only in our classroom, since they are not observable once they leave class (and are less observable in an online course).  I recommend simply asking the student: are you studying differently for this class?  Are you thinking differently?  Are you valuing this educational experience?  See what they say!

Check out two related talks (both with fascinating animation)--one on educational paradigms:

The other talk is on motivation:

One last thought from Barr and Tagg (1995): "A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted."


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