Monday, September 14, 2015

Active Learning Versus Lecture

Yesterday, Annie Murphy Paul, journalist and author of a forthcoming book on learning called Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, wrote an op/ed article for the New York Times asking "Are College Lectures Unfair?"

She reports that "a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students." She blames the lecture format itself as the source of unfair advantage and touts "active learning" methodologies for breaking down the advantages lecture provides to more privileged undergraduates. An identical version of her article posted on her blog contains links to the research she cites.

While I'm not familiar with the research on race, gender and class, I am familiar with the growing scientific literature on how we learn. Some of this research is summarized in a book for students, written by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, called "The New Science of Learning." I like to give my students a copy of this book before the semester begins. Here are the key ideas, quoted from the first chapter:
1. Neuroscience research shows that when you learn something new, there is a physical change in your brain. Some of your brain cells establish connections with other brain cells to form new networks of cells, which represent the new learning that has taken place.
2. Every time you use or practice newly learned information or skills, the connections between the brain cells get stronger and your ability to recall the information becomes faster. This is called long-term potentiation.
3. The important message for all learners is that new learning requires a considerable amount of practice and a meaningful connection to other information in order to become a permanent part of memory.
4. Neuroseince research has also found that to form lasting memories, practice needs to happen over extended periods. Psychologists call this the distributed practice effect.
5. Cramming is not learning. A day or two of cramming is not nearly enough time for the brain to form the permanent memories necessary to meet the neuroscience definition of learning.
6. You can demonstrate learning by using new information to help you learn similar new information or by applying it to problems beyond those you have been doing in class. Psychologists call this transference. 
7. The human brain is constantly looking for connections to prior knowledge. These connections link previously learned material to new material, creating a more meaningful understanding of the new material.
8. The message from neuroscience researchers is relatively simple: "The one who does the work does the learning." Only when you practice, read, write, think, talk, collaborate and reflect does your brain make permanent connections. Your teachers cannot do this for you.

Terry Doyle has also written a book for teachers called Learner Centered Teaching - Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Other resources are contained in his blog/website.

Many active learning techniques and methodologies are used by the most successful law teachers as reported by Michael Hunter Schwartz, Gerald F. Hess and Sophie M. Sparrow in their book What the Best Law Teachers Do and on their website The Institute for Law Teaching and Learning.

Active learning methodologies improve learning outcomes. This is why, in my law school classes, I divide the content into modules, give students grade credit for turning in their homework (points based on effort), provide take-home assignments to draft client advice letters and memoranda for credit, and give mid-term exams as well as final exams. Students need feedback and iterative opportunities to improve their skills and performance. While providing interim assignments and feedback definitely creates more work for the law professor, science indicates that they move all students more steadily toward academic (and for law students, professional) success. 

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