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A Manifesto for Active Learning

dcctweets[This is a guest post by Jason Farman, the author of Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. He is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Maryland, College Park. His website is http://www.jasonfarman.com and he can be found on Twitter at @farman.--@JBJ]

Since I’ve been teaching in higher education, I have always been very confident of my teaching abilities. I knew I was a good teacher; that is, until fall semester of 2012.

I had just been awarded a fellowship with the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Maryland, given to 10 faculty members each year from disciplines all across the campus. I then met with my fellow faculty members every Friday morning for an hour to discuss teaching methods, pedagogical theories, and the role of face-to-face learning in the digital age.

Working alongside these seasoned scholar-teachers, I realized that everything I had taken for granted about my own teaching wasn’t always the best approach. I very quickly realized that each one of my assumptions had to be reevaluated, beginning with the idea that I was a good teacher.

Throughout the academic year working with the Center for Teaching Excellence, I built my teaching philosophy from the ground up, holding each of my assumptions under close examination. In the end, I crafted the following Manifesto for Active Learning.

Learning is Not The Same Thing as Receiving Information.

I distinctly remember an odd feeling when I created my first syllabus. When I was finished, I asked myself, “Couldn’t the students just get all of these books and learn this material on their own?” After all, there are now massive amounts of fantastic syllabi online. What’s the role of the university classroom if students can simply get a great syllabus on the topic of their choosing and go through the assignments on their own?

If someone were to pick up one of my syllabi and engage all of the readings I assign on their own, they would miss the core of what makes my classes successful. Information transfer is not what my classes are about. My classes, instead, are focused on developing intellectual curiosity and teaching students to learn how to learn (a phrase borrowed from Red Burns, which she often used at the beginning of her ITP classes at NYU).

When writing a new syllabus now, I force myself back to being a college freshman and going home the summer immediately afterward. What I hoped to communicate to everyone back home was that it was a transformative experience. My ideas about the world were challenged in an environment where people with diverse backgrounds, interests, and ideologies were in conversation (and contention) with one another.

Lectures Are Not the Enemy of Active Learning.

Even though information transfer and learning cannot be confused or conflated, I now believe that information transfer does have its place in active learning. This became obvious to me working with faculty in vastly different disciplines than mine. Sometimes lectures are an essential step to guiding someone toward deeper knowledge.

I used to “not believe in lectures“—that is, being a sage-on-the-stage—and would say that even in a class of 100 students a professor can encourage active discussion. But, I’ve changed my opinion about the role of the lecture in my classes and often give lectures throughout the semester.

That said, I consider lectures as a component of achieving my first goal: teaching my students how to learn. If I can spark their intellectual curiosity about a subject and teach them how to actively pursue knowledge about that subject—and that’s all I’ve done in a semester’s time—then I consider myself a successful teacher. The development of intellectual curiosity about the topics I teach, and what to do with that intellectual curiosity, will serve these students as lifelong learners in a way that straightforward information transfer never could.

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Lectures Should Never Be Passive.

Since I now do offer lectures occasionally in place of my typical discussion-driven class sessions, I was curious about how students experience those lectures. I asked my class of 65 honors freshman in their second semester at the university, “How many of you have already fallen asleep in one of your lectures since you’ve been at the University of Maryland?” I was shocked to see roughly 90% of them raise their hands. Those other 10%, it seems, were keeping themselves awake by sending each other SnapChats during the lecture.

My goal has been to remove the passivity of receiving a lecture, much in the same way that Bertolt Brecht removed the passivity from the theatergoer. My lectures aren’t an immersive experience that allows the students to be unaccountable; instead, the lights are on, students are responding to the lecture in real time on Twitter, and they have agency in the way that the topic develops through various techniques like guiding questions discussed via Twitter or even coming up and writing topics they want to go into depth about on the chalkboard during my talk. My ultimate goal here is to make them self-reflexive about their own responsibility in learning in a lecture setting.

The Loudest Voice in the Room is Not Always the Smartest.

Smart people like to talk. Smarter people like to listen. This is true especially of professors and one of my biggest challenges has been to talk less and listen more. I have a lot to learn from these students and I want them to embrace the fact that they have a lot to learn from each other.

Part of accomplishing this mutual learning process is to encourage the listeners to speak up more. Beyond directly calling on them—which I occasionally do, and I am always pleased that I did because of the great contributions they make—I also require my students to respond to the topics being discussed that day on Twitter. All the students follow the Twitter discussion in real time and I survey their reactions during the final 15 minutes of class.

Not surprisingly, the shy students typically find this online space a safe arena to share their ideas. In the first year I implemented this at the University of Maryland, the students who self identified as shy contributed on average 35% more than was required (some of them contributed up to 150% more than required). I want to make room for the listeners to speak up.

Technology Should Not Be Banned from the Classroom.

Last spring, I took a picture of the students in my large lecture from the back of the room. A guest speaker was talking, and in the frame of the shot you can see a student with his laptop open to his Facebook news feed, another student texting on her phone, and another student with large headphones on listening to music.

Yes, students are distracted by media, especially their mobile technologies. As I wrote in a previous ProfHacker post, the answer to this problem, however, is not to ban or ignore these technologies. The answer is to incorporate them.

When we lament that technology is a distraction, we as professors are missing out on two key opportunities. First, we’re missing out on the opportunity to show our students that there are ways to use these technologies that challenge the “default” uses. Getting students to take their most intimate technologies and completely reimagine the possible uses can be a truly transformative experience.

Second, we’re missing out on the fact that nearly all of our students currently have some kind of mobile device. Finding a way to incorporate this common technology can expand the possible ways students connect both in and out of the classroom. The results, in my courses thus far, have been students who are less distracted by their Facebook news feeds and SnapChats and are instead using their devices to engage the course material.

We need to be rid of using the word “multitasking” as a single bucket into which a range of diverse, complicated, and nuanced activities reside; instead, let’s be specific about which activities can promote learning (perhaps in nontraditional ways) and which activities are the true hurdles for learning. This resonates with Cathy Davidson’s plea that we get “rid of the myth of monotasking.”

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The Classroom is Not the Classroom.

The classroom experience should not be confined to a room inside a university building nor should it be confined to the allotted meeting time. In an era in which most of our students interact in asynchronous ways, finding techniques to bring that asynchronicity into the course experience allows for the ideas to be present with the students throughout the week.

I have my students engage the course material throughout the week and they interact with each other constantly outside of our allotted meeting time. They primarily do this through platforms like Twitter, where the conversations among my students happen almost daily as they react to the readings and to comments posted by other students.

I’m also very much invested in site-specific learning by getting my students outside of the classroom and to interact with course-related material around the campus. I want to have them understand the impact of the things we study on the spaces that are most important to them.

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Humanities Education is Not About Job Skills, Though it Should Never Be Detached from Broad Applicability.

I don’t believe that humanities education is about obtaining job skills; however, the skills needed for any job are obtained in a humanities education. Thus, a humanities education has urgently important relevance to my students’ lives, regardless of their majors.

Over the past three years I have been teaching in the Digital Cultures and Creativity Program at the University of Maryland, and roughly 85% of the students in this program are pursuing science-related degrees. I continually make explicit the relevance of humanities and cultural studies approaches to the work they will do throughout their academic career and afterward.

At the beginning of one of my technology-related classes, I showed a commercial for a technical university (a for-profit school called Colorado Technical University) at which they could learn innumerable hands-on skills in things like the Adobe Creative Suite in ways that I could never teach them in the short time we had together. “So,” I asked them, “why aren’t you enrolled at CTU instead of Maryland?”

Ultimately—beyond issues related to the reputation of the university where they get their degrees—their answers pointed to the importance of humanities education: tools, like the Creative Suite, become so rapidly obsolescent that education has to be about something deeper. It has to be connected to the cultural conditions in which these technologies emerge and the broad impacts of these technologies on a diverse range of people.

Another method I use to reinforce the broad applicability of the humanities and cultural studies is a final assignment I give to many of my courses. I have my students write a short reflection paper about the broad relevance of the course and ask them to reflect on at least two major concepts that we discussed, topics that they hope to carry with them into other classes and into their chosen career path. I frame this under the question, “You may only remember roughly 5% of what we’ve studied together in five years time — what would you like that 5% to be?”

Grades Do Not Capture the Entire Picture.

The Digital Cultures and Creativity Program at the University of Maryland enrolls the “best and brightest” at the University. Each one of these students is an honors student and many have received full scholarships to attract them here.

These students, however, have been raised in an educational environment that puts enormous pressure on success. Success for these students is getting an A. It’s not about how much they learned; it’s not about how much the topics in the class piqued their curiosity about the world around them; it’s not about how the class transformed their perspectives. Success is about the grade that they received.

With such a perspective, there is no room for failure (or even a B+), so there ends up being no room for experimentation. They fear trying something new or something that they may not be initially good at because it is far too risky to their GPA.

My job as a professor to these students is to push them to see the value of experimentation, of thinking outside of the box, to see that grades only capture a very small portion of the learning experience in a class, and to understand that taking risks is a fundamental component of the learning process. They may not get an A, but they will have grown as students and as people with a constantly evolving view of the world in which they live.

This Manifesto is Subject To Change at the Professor’s Discretion.

Similar to the note I put at the end of each of my syllabi, I’ll end this with the following statement: “This Manifesto is subject to change as the writer’s opinions change and evolve, hopefully with your help and guidance.” So, what’s missing from this Manifesto? What would you change or augment? How is active learning achieved in your classes?

Photo of DCC student tweeting, courtesy of Jason Farman.

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