Three thoughts on active learning and self-teaching

Three thoughts on active learning and self-teaching

If you are an instructor and decide to use active learning in significant amounts in your classes, you will almost certainly get pushback from students that sounds like this:

Prof. So-and-so isn't teaching the material. Instead, I am having to teach myself the material.

Whether it's because I'm reading a lot of my colleagues' student perception data in my current role as department chair, or because I'm looking ahead to getting back in the classroom in the fall, this perception has been on my mind. There are actually two perceptions: (1) that an instructor's use of active learning is not teaching (and forces students to teach themselves), and (2) that teaching yourself is bad. Although I've touched on the issue of self-teaching before (here and again here), there are three things important to realize about this ongoing perception related to active and flipped learning.

First: Learning is a process, not an action that one person performs on another. Embedded in these perceptions is the idea that the ideal state for learning is when a content expert tells you what you need to know or do, and nothing important is left up to you to figure out. And embedded within that is the notion that by doing so, the expert's act of telling will cause learning to happen. But nobody, if they look to anything significant that they have ever learned and are honest about how they learned it, believes this. You're good at playing piano -- did you learn it by watching YouTube? You have a deep appreciation for poetry -- do you have it because a lecturer told you so?

Direct instruction does have an important role to play in the learning process. It can provide efficient conveyance of basic information, perspectives, and patterns of thinking. But in the end, an outside person cannot cause you to learn. This isn't how learning works. Learning instead is a process that moves back and forth, sometimes focused on an instructor but other times focused on the learner or a group of learners together. An outsider does not and cannot create the neural pathways and associations that we call "learning". The best they can do is describe how to form those pathways and give you the time, space, and opportunity to work on them.

But some of the most important knowledge I have, came from an inspiring lecture some people will say. You were presented with information, a quotation, or a work of art or music that changed who you are. But I would contend that as real and important as that knowledge is, the presentation of it was just the start, just the inspiration. The real change came from you. You saw or heard this thing, connected it to something in your life, or something missing in your life, and your act of connection is what brought about the change. Otherwise why didn't everybody in that lecture have the same experience?

Second: Not being lectured to all the time is not the same thing as having teach yourself. If learning really were an action performed by one person upon another, then it would make sense to say that if the actor isn't always acting, then the subject is doing the work themselves. When I had heart surgery, had the surgeon ever decided to let me handle even a small part of the operation, I would be justified in saying that I had to perform surgery on myself, even if the surgeon did most of the work. But because learning is a process of co-creation that is inherently shared by different people, an instructor giving students responsibility for key parts of their learning is not "not teaching". It's not an all-or-nothing false dichotomy, where either the instructor does all the work or the student does all the work. Is the student be asked to teach themselves a few things? Yes, but that's part of the process and again, anybody who looks at anything important that they've learned and are honest about how they learned it, knows this.

Third: In any event, the skill of self-teaching is essential in college and needs to be developed. There's also the belief in all this that having to teach myself things is bad. But not only is self-teaching not bad, it's probably the one skill out of all the stuff learned in a college class that has a 100% chance of being used in the future. When I was at Steelcase, I found that the company had zero interest in hiring new employees or interns that had to be hand-held -- who only knew how to take notes, pass tests, and follow directions. Instead, they wanted people who could come in and learn new things quickly and independently. The only thing that separates us from our competitors is that we learn faster than they do, was the saying. Steelcase isn't unique in this. A person who can't (or doesn't like to) teach themselves new things is fundamentally unemployable in today's working world. They are also not set up for a meaningful life regardless of career, since a rich life is nothing if not a constant self-teaching experience.

Since we know self-teaching is essential, it's our responsibility as instructors to give students practice with doing so. A college class that doesn't provide this practice is dishonest. A university degree that doesn't signal this skill isn't basically worthless.

Sometimes students with these perceptions about active learning and teaching themselves the material have a point. Maybe their prof is using active or flipped learning as cover for their own disengagement. They give students work to do in class that isn't interesting or challenging; they give feedback that is late or unhelpful; they're disorganized. In this situation, where self-teaching happens because the professor is not trustworthy and not taking care of their end of the co-creative process, is a serious issue and needs to be corrected.

But in general, we need to see -- and we have work to do in communicating this to students -- that self-teaching is a feature, not a bug.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.