against active learning

I’m against active learning. Well, maybe not against it. Would you settle for “less for it than others are?” Here’s why.

I gave a great lecture yesterday for the first day of class in Sociology 101 (Intro Sociology). Well, I thought it was great, and my reading of the students’ faces was that they were following along with me, laughing at the right points, even engaging in a little call-and-response when appropriate. It’s a lecture I’ve honed over many times teaching the class. It introduces the scope of the course, the idea of sociology as a science, the importance of evidence and argument, and the focal point of the course’s structure: the fundamental unit of human behavior is the group.

This class is organized fairly traditionally: Tuesdays are generally lectures, Thursdays the class is divided into sections for discussions led by me and by TAs. I don’t do much in the way of active learning: games, role-plays, and similar to engage students in extratextual ways. This is not fashionable; the death of the lecture has been declared many times and it’s commonplace for people to sniff that lectures are not the most effective way of teaching, often providing a statistic about the proportion of information retained — a statistic I first heard in a lecture. (By the way, these statistics are typically about the central tendency, not the spread or distribution; the fact that most people don’t learn all that well from lectures coexists with the fact that some people may well learn better from lectures!)

I have two reasons for resisting this shift, although I do use active learning techniques sometimes — just as one among several techniques, and generally secondary to more traditional lectures and reading discussions. One of these reasons is about pedagogy in general, the other is specific to sociology.

First the more general. There is a hidden curriculum in all we do in the classroom. We’re not just teaching students material (of course), we’re teaching them what they can expect, what they’re entitled to, and how to learn. As UNC’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Winston Crisp, told parents this month:

We have created the most cared for, the most cherished, the most sheltered, the most facilitated generation of people that the world has probably ever seen….

Among the most common words in student evaluations of instructors I read as Associate Chair was “entertaining.” We are training students to expect entertainment: to expect that difficult, even foreign, intellectual material will be translated for them into bite-sized dinosaur-themed chicken nuggets of infotainment.

You have to learn how to learn from a lecture. You have to learn how to learn from a book too. Today’s students learned how to learn from video, from twitter, from instagram, and more. Insisting that they stretch beyond these to new (for them) learning modalities is, itself, an educational mission, and one we ought to embrace, not discard.

I feel this way about other forms of intellectual engagement too: final papers that should be written in academic form, presentations in class done systematically, writing done in complete sentences and paragraphs with correct grammar. None of these comes easily, and one could argue that none is important to the content of the class. But I think one would be wrong to argue that, because form and content co-constitute one another.

Second the more specific. Much sociological knowledge is, or should be, unfamiliar. In the class I TAed for her, Ann Swidler likened it to learning a difficult dance step. Doing it right involves convincing one’s mind to abandon the individualist ontology to which it is accustomed and consider, instead, the possibility that the real driver of social action is the group. Often this insight is simply not available in young, elite, American students’ lived experience. Demonstrations and games, while they may illustrate content well, also suggest to students that the content can always be experienced individually. Sociology demands that students consider social possibilities that are entirely inaccessible to them as experience and can be accessed only through careful and disciplined critical distance. (This is the same reason I no longer allow students to write their intro final papers on observations they carry out: it’s too easy for them simply to interpret what they already know instead of breaking out of their assumptions.)

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

11 thoughts on “against active learning”

  1. Thanks for sharing your approach, Andy. Teaching mostly social psychology, I find that students can learn effectively largely by drawing on their own experiences and applying the concepts to the world around them, but I understand that not all topics are like that. It was interesting to hear how you see it differently – and certainly a rather unique view in a discipline that prides itself on creative ways to deliver course content.

    I know that active learning is like “hooking up” in that everyone means something different when they claim to have done it or to not be a fan of it, but it sounds to me that half of your class is more active than most! Engaging students in a class discussion is active learning. Even though I actually am a fan of active learning, I don’t even do as much as you in a large lecture class. My classes meet two days a week, like yours, and I spend most days – save a couple where we might do group activities and discussion – lecturing. I try to incorporate various “active” things into the lecture time (e.g., journaling/reflections, asking students to write down an example of what I’m talking about or to apply it to another setting in their notes, engaging discussion of the topic) to break things up a bit, but students spend an awful lot of time listening to me, watching a video, or listening to an NPR segment.

    While I agree with you that students need to learn to learn from traditional mediums like books and listening to others, I also want to equip them to see the world outside the lecture hall sociologically. I feel that by making them watch movies, clips, consider their own experiences, and so forth with a sociological eye, I am training them to see that sociology doesn’t begin and end with sociologists or the assigned readings, but it’s everywhere. I want them to be critical consumers of twitter, instagram, movies, etc. I know that you do, too, and you’re equipping them to do that by teaching them the material well. However, I’ve always been better at learning with mixed-modalities, or at least beyond simple auditory learning, so probably teach to students like myself and hope that the others can come along for the ride.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jessica. I think what I have in mind is modalities that are like role-playing games. They engage students by seeking to put them in the positions of people being discussed. That’s why I find them individualizing: it’s individual students being put in the positions of other individuals. If asking students to discuss a text is active learning, I’m for that part (though not sure how far I want to push the “hooking up” metaphor in this context….).


  2. Hmmm. I think you are going after the wrong target in complaining about “active learning,” although I agree with your point about learning to learn via listening. I also lecture, and these days mostly lecture to classes of size 90-120. Good/great lectures are different from texts. The lecture offers a human being who is providing a perspective, a way of looking at things. It can provide some ideas to chew on. I, like apparently you, have students write comments to me during my lectures which, for most of them, promotes active learning, in the sense of the student taking what they are hearing and doing something with it. An active listener is thinking about what they are hearing.

    But lecturing is a terrible format for details you need to double-check and remember; texts are better for that. If you are not sure about something in a lecture, there is nothing you can do, because it has rolled on, just like an audio book while you are driving and it would be dangerous to fiddle with the control to back up a bit. In a large lecture hall, students can’t ask questions, they can miss one thing and from that missing tidbit of information be unable to follow the rest of the lecture. They can misunderstand things and not have that misunderstanding corrected.

    Your complaint is more about having college students do the types of activities that promote learning in six year olds like acting things out. So you could re-analyze it as about age-appropriateness. I think only a nut would think that lecturing is a good way to teach small children. But then you might reflect on the learning styles literature and realize that perhaps even 20 year olds might benefit from alternate ways to get things into their brains. Not that I do that. I just lecture. But I’m not sure it is, in principle, wrong to mix it up a bit.

    An alternate part of your complaint is you all the “active learning” activities promote individualist rather than group thinking. But I can remember some alternatives. There was a game making the rounds some years ago (could have been 20+) that you’d invite people to play and the trick of it was that if you pursued individualistic strategies you would absolutely lose, the only way to win was group cooperation.

    You could also pretty easily create a group conflict game that would demonstrate how easy it is to generate inter-group hostilities and identities. And I’m pretty sure the old SIMSOC game was not individualistic although I never taught it, as I cannot imagine Bill Gamson put together a gaming model of society that stressed individualism. But the game took too long to run to be something you just did for one class, so I never got into it.


  3. A comment from a grad student, and my reply, below:

    Student’s comment:
    “I try to combine lecture/discussion style with role playing in my classes. I like role-play part a lot and in the summer theory class I found it useful too. They were discussing a lot about how the theoretical argument could be applied to a case and how they could convince each other. Some of them also came together outside the class to come up with strategies as a group. I am not saying it was a great success, there are still things I would like to work on in that combination but overall I was happy that I included role-play part.

    So I wonder, when you refer to role-plays what type of role plays you had in mind? Why do you think that they would contribute to an individual learning environment?”

    My reply:
    “I know there’s a wide variety of ways to handle this and mine is but one. I wrote it in sort of a defensive posture because active learning is so popular in general. But the fact that I am skeptical of these approaches is NOT a reason why you should change your practice, nor a criticism of your, or others’, decision to use them!

    The role-plays I’m thinking about, mostly, have to do with inequality: playing Monopoly with the original wealth skewed proportionately to the US (or world) population, for example; or flipping coins successively for rewards to build or change wealth distributions. These are GREAT ways of teaching the growth and persistence of inequality (and I’ve used both successfully), but they emphasize *individual* fortune and luck, not *collective* experience or behavior.”


    1. Thanks for including this exchange in the comments. For your student and anyone who is reading who is interested, I’ve used the modified monopoly (Monopoly in a Stratified Society) in a social inequality course with great success. I’ve learned a few things along the way, though. First, you can’t get away with skipping playing regular Monopoly first. The students absolutely must have something (both an experience and brief reflection) to compare the Stratified Monopoly experience to. Second, the bigger the groups, the bigger the social classes, the better it works. This is how you can get class consciousness and interaction among and between class groups based on classed experiences. Third, it’s important to not focus on how much or how little money someone makes in the game, but more on the experience of playing – the emotions, perceptions of fairness, abuse of power, etc. Students are great at seeing how their position in social structure made them act and feel a particular way, but they need to be reminded that that’s an important goal and not simply being attuned to how the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Finally, the students benefit when they need to apply the experience to something more traditional (e.g., a reading or lecture).


  4. In my Social and Economic Justice course, one of the themes that I want students to critical think about is why movements target different institutions, use different tactics and seek varying levels of social change. I don’t lecture on any of these things and don’t assign any social movement theory readings.

    I have everyone pretend we are in Greenwich Village in 1913. I assign some people to be radical labor activists and others to be more moderate suffrage activists, with the remainder being a haphazard assortment of cultural and political radicals. Each student is assigned a relatively unique set of primary documents and is charged with convincing their classmates, through formal and informal presentations, about their importance of his or her cause.

    After setting the stage (which takes a few days), I’m largely in the background since a student is assigned to moderate the debate. My main role is to pass notes to students in order to prod them in certain directions and informally consult with them. For example, I might pass a note to an IWW representative to challenge a suffragists with, “Working men have had the right to vote for years and it hasn’t protected them. How will granting women the right to vote improve the condition for girls in factories?”* More often than not, I end up not passing the note because the students have already raised the relevant issue themselves. After the debates are finished, we step out of character and talk about the relevant concepts.

    I’m always looking for more ways to add sociological concepts to the discussions and tweak the course every semester in order to get more students to think more critically more frequently, but I’m usually pleased with how things turn out. On even the worst days, multiple students are actively debating the best route for making political change. I’ll take that.

    This style of teaching is associated with Reacting to the Past (RTTP). I’ve used it for the last few years in my undergraduate teaching. The specific scenario I use for part of my SEJ course is called, “Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman” by Mary Jane Treacy. The scenario materials, like almost all RTTP games, includes a 30 page description of the game for students; 50 pages of historical background reading on the movements; 50+ primary historical documents; 5 page role sheets for 30 different characters which often list additional historical document; and a 200 page instructor’s manual. I modify things a bit to make it more appropriate for the goals of my course, but the startup costs for switching to RTTP can be low. It works best for classes in the 15-40 size range.


    * Depending on student’s role’s POV, the response is either, “well change takes a long time and getting the right to vote is a good first step”, or “women are biologically and cultural more attuned to alleviating suffering, as our experience in the settlement movement shows.” The latter response usually draws a quick rebuke from someone playing a feminist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Neal, your course looks fantastic. Can I take it? I totally agree that with the learning goals you describe, the game approach is terrific. That said: there are modes of thought that were common in 1913 and are not now. IWW and other labor activists were often the targets of anti-Semitic vitriol and sometimes even lynching threats. It was probably “obvious” that southern European immigrants were untrustworthy, and that so on. The press was a profoundly different beast then than it is now. I know you know all this – I’m only trying to point out that there are features of the social landscape that recede as students are asked to act agentically.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree about the limitations–I think students would be ill-served if all their courses were RTTP-style. To a large extent, I’m free riding off the conceptual background they get in other courses.

        Re “features of the social landscape”: Usually labor wins and goes home happy. The next day, they find out that I’ve fast forwarded to 1917, and each faction must choose to support the US war effort or be repressed. Suffrage folks happily support the troops, while IWW activist come to the slow realization that they must lose. They become dejected and can’t believe this could happen. At this point I remind that, in real life, women won the right to vote and the IWW is largely forgotten, known only for its songbook.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry, but this strikes me as so much academic voodoo. Lectures require listening, therefore listening to them will teach students to listen. Formal writing requires X, therefore forcing students to pay attention to form over content will teach them X – 2 for the price of 1. Very sympathetic. What’s your evidence for that? Real evidence – not thinking about what works for you or the students who come to your notice as good by being like you! There seems to be enough evidence that if you want to teach someone something, you have to teach them. So if you want to teach them sociology, teach them sociology – the best way you can (not the laziest, easiest to throw together at the last minute, the most scaleable to full auditoria way). If you want to teach them listening or formal writing – teach them that. Think about those who fail because they are not like you, not about those who excel because they are your cognitive clones.

    PS: I have nothing against lectures – this argument is against their justification based on nothing but convenience and half-baked lecturer folk wisdom.

    PPS: I’m all for sociology making people uncomfortable. But asking them to do it through unnecessarily cognitively inaccessible ways is the equivalent of causing discomfort by putting thumb tacks on their seats.


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