This evening my daughter complained about a presentation by an acting group that visited her class today and talked to the kids about how important it is to do well in school. The presentation involved role playing and funny sounds and exaggerated acting and games and (apparently) the assumption that the kids couldn't understand complex concepts like priorities. Although by no means averse to games and role-playing (in fact, her beloved summer camp seems to consist mostly of such activities), she said she hoped that this kind of in-class childish activity went away in college, if not before, and she added, for good measure "I hate think-pair-share."
She was saddened to hear that think-pair-share is alive and well in universities. I have been to numerous teaching workshops in which professors are urged to try it and other activities with cute names. Supposedly, concepts will be more interesting, memorable, and better understood if introduced via activities – i.e., so-called active (as opposed to passive) learning.
A consequence of integrating activities into lecture time is that it may not be possible to cover as many topics – or as many topics in depth – as it would be without the activities. Is it worth it to cover fewer topics if those topics are better understood or is it better to cover more topics and not leave out any important concepts? Of course, part of the equation involves the subjective decision about what concepts are important.
Another issue is that if you want to incorporate active-learning into a lecture-format course, you have to decide how to integrate activities with the rest of the course material, and to make the activities meaningful, not just some random little game that is played for the sake of doing something other than lecture.
I hope that these written statements are fairly clear. Perhaps later I will organize a little anonymous activity we can all do that will help us understand the essential issues and come to a deeper feeling for the topic.
In the meantime, I should mention that some college (and younger) students love these activities, even if some find them insulting and childish. I should also mention that I am not only talking about student response to activities I may attempt in my lectures, but am talking more generally based on information gleaned from other colleagues.
In fact, this post is motivated not only by today's conversation with my daughter but also in part by a recent conversation with a colleague who sat in the back of a classroom while another colleague was teaching. The teaching colleague had students come to the front of the room and do some activities that illustrated concepts; these were not actual experiments but sort of 'analogy' activities where each student symbolized some scientific phenomenon and acted out a process.
The observing colleague overheard some grumbling students say that they hadn’t had to do anything so childish in class since 3rd grade. I can see how it might be a shock, especially for a 1st year student, to arrive at a big university lecture and be expected to play pretend in the front of the class, but perhaps the experience, even if somewhat insulting, will be especially memorable?
I don't know, but I do know that in any large class there is going to be a diversity of opinion on teaching and learning styles. And of course there will also be some disagreement between some professors and students about the best ways to teach and learn.
Late in the last century I went to a teaching workshop in which undergraduates told a group of professors how they (the students) learned best. This workshop was memorable for two reasons:
(1) The students told us professors that they wanted to play “more games” in class; and
(2) An elderly Professor of History, incensed with the relentlessness of the workshop’s message that we should sacrifice course content for “games” and that we should assume that our students are lost and confused and in need of our help with “life issues” (again at the expense of course content), stood up and made an impassioned speech about the beauty of intellectual pursuits and how this beauty would be besmirched if we spent time in class asking students how they were feeling and doing role play games to teach them how to take the bus, even in a class on Ancient Civilizations. The professorial audience gave him an ovation. The students looked glum. The professor-student chasm widened.
Regular readers will recall that I have been taking language courses at my university. I am currently in the 3rd year of these courses. We do role playing and such in these classes, but it makes sense to do this in a language class. It is helpful to pretend to be buying a bus ticket or asking for directions in the language we are learning.
But what about in other classes? What about in science classes? In the science classes I teach, I do some in-class activities, but I don't think any of these could be called games. The activities help break up the lecture format, and I specifically choose activities that are short, interactive, and make a simple but important point. I don't think anyone feels like a 3rd grader during these activities, and so far I haven't had to give anyone a timeout.
I sometimes feel (perhaps because of peer pressure) that I should do more activities in my science classes but I haven't yet found a good way to do this and still have time to discuss all the topics I consider essential.
8 months ago