What if I don’t want to be an active learner?

A pharmacy professor I got to know when I worked at a university Centre for Teaching and Learning had left his job as a hospital pharmacist to share his professional passion with young pharmacists in training.

He planned to completely upend the lecture-only teaching practices of his own pharmacy student days. “All my professors were so boring,” he said. “I got tired of just sitting there, class after class. I wanted my own students to learn actively.” During the summer, he read as many articles on active learning as he could find, delighted that his ideas were grounded in theory and research.

On his first day as a professor, he told the class that he wanted them to get involved with the issues they’d be facing as 21st century pharmacists. Once a week, he expected them to find relevant articles in professional journals and critique them in writing. Also, at the start of each lecture, he would supply a question of the day. The students could respond in front of their peers at one of the two floor mics he’d set up on the steps of the lecture hall.

Two weeks later, not a single student had submitted a written article critique. No one had been willing to approach the microphones to speak. More and more students were knocking on his office door, complaining that he wasn’t doing his job because he wasn’t lecturing. “And what have all these activities got to do with us passing the national pharmacy board exams?” they said.

I could relate. Several years previously, I had enlisted the help of a drama professor to help me convince a group of student teachers that using drama was a great way to engage middle school kids with reading a novel. The prof and I had planned a series of “can’t miss” activities that we thought the student teachers would find fun and engaging. Twenty minutes into the lesson, with only one person willing to participate while the others sat slumped in their chairs, arms crossed, unwilling to make eye contact with us, the drama prof lowered her voice and said to me, “Do something. I’m dying up here.”

In articles designed to help instructors use active learning, student resistance is rarely addressed. We’re led to believe that our students will jump headfirst into discussions, and drawing, and drama. But those of us who have experienced the “I’m dying up here” phenomenon know that student resistance to active learning is common, especially in secondary post-secondary, and adult learning classrooms.

So what do we do? Give up? Go back to lecture only, in spite of our conviction that students could learn more effectively if they were willing to get involved?

Here are a few strategies that could help to address the issue:

Set the stage for active learning. Don’t plunge students into active learning without letting them know why and how you’re planning to use activities in your classroom. Share the research on how long most people can sit and listen before they tune out (it varies from 5-6 minutes to 10 or 15, but it’s not the 50-90 minutes that most classroom sessions last.) Reassure them that active learning will help to build their critical, creative, and collaborative skills, and help them to understand difficult concepts more readily, so they might even get better grades.

These explanations are especially important for students who come from countries where instructors assume the role of all-knowing expert, their authority not to be questioned. Let students know that you value and want to hear their voices, and then be patient as they adjust to the expectations of this unfamiliar learning culture.

Meet students halfway between lecture and active learning. After seriously considering going back to his hospital job, the pharmacy professor realized that his students’ fears of not passing the national exams were real. He decided to resume lecturing for part of every lesson and take active learning “breaks” to ensure his students were understanding and processing what he’d taught. His students were much more accepting of active learning as a result.

Give students’ choices of activity types. Because the pharmacy professor was confident in expressing his opinions, he assumed his students would have no problem speaking spontaneously in front of their peers at microphones. The drama prof and I both loved to perform in front of others. We’d all forgotten in planning our activities that our students weren’t us.

Although the drama prof and I didn’t get another chance to “right” our mistake, the pharmacy prof did. He deleted the public speaking activity from his repertoire in favor of getting students to do a “think, pair, share” from their seats. Students had the chance to think about and write down an answer individually, then chat with a neighbor about their opinions.

If a lesson goes wrong, ask the students why. After my disastrous drama lesson, I saw some of the students in the cafeteria. I went over to their table and said, “Wow. That lesson didn’t go well. I thought more people would participate. What happened?” One of the students said, “We’re just so exhausted. It’s coming up to midterm and we’re swamped with assignments. We just didn’t have the energy to get out of our chairs.” Sometimes, our timing as instructors is off, or there may be other reasons why students won’t get involved. Finding out why students are disinterested can help to depersonalize what we may see as a failed lesson, and make us more responsive to student needs.

Yes (sigh), assigning grades will likely help with involvement. The pharmacy professor was expecting that his students would complete their written article critiques without receiving a mark for them. “I thought they’d want to do them,” he said. Unfortunately, many students need the extrinsic motivation of a grade before they’ll get involved in active learning, especially if instructors ask them to do work on their own outside the classroom.

These strategies might help to reassure your students about active learning and help them be more willing to get involved. But teaching, like any human activity, is an inexact science. Sometimes, a strategy that works with one student or a group of students, won’t work with others. Ultimately, active learning is a concept that you’ll need to keep experimenting with, applauding yourself when it works, and being gentle with yourself when it doesn’t.

2 Comments

  1. What an interesting article. I myself am not very good at participating in role laying or speaking in front of a group unless I am forewarned and feel prepared. I love that your article looks at ways that teachers can get around reticence to active learning, as I believe so many of us have a basic natural instinct to not want to stand out in the crowd – especially in a learning situation, where one might feel open to ridicule if you don’t “know enough”. I wish I had teachers like you when I was in school.

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    1. Yes, I think most teachers are very comfortable with being in front of a crowd (duh) and we can forget that’s not everyone’s comfort zone. There are just so many other ways for people to express their opinions in a learning situation and still feel safe doing it. Thanks so much for the compliment! I miss the classroom a lot, actually.

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