Fear and loathing in the classroom: A case for active learning

College students working together in a classroom

While many studies tout the rewards of active learning, instructors are often apprehensive about introducing these techniques in their classrooms. Especially for faculty in the humanities whose own training may have been largely lecture-based, the shift can be disconcerting to say the least. In my Pearson webinar on the use of active learning in art history, I outlined some of the practical challenges and possible solutions to such concerns. Here, I want to talk more generally about the culture of resistance that prevents many of us from taking the plunge.

The growing call for faculty in higher education to abandon lecture-based instruction in favor of active learning models has triggered a backlash in some circles. For critics, this seems a trend, smacking of pedagogical political correctness and acquiescence to a culture that demands to be entertained and rejects reading anything over 140 characters. According to the “lectures are good for you” argument, lectures teach students to sustain focus in an age of constant distraction, and thus build skills of critical thinking and analysis essential to advanced study. While advocates may rightly praise the ability of a well-delivered lecture to provide content, model academic expertise, and demonstrate the logic used to construct sound scholarly arguments, accomplished lecturers still acknowledge the role of personal charisma, and admit that having the rapt attention of an audience does not always correspond to gains in students’ knowledge.

It’s important to recall that the goal of active learning is not merely to enhance student engagement, although that can be a happy side effect. In-class activities provide students ways to process and reflect upon course material that may be delivered face-to-face or online through lectures, readings, or other materials. This encourages students to use higher order thinking skills necessary to improve conceptual understanding, to apply ideas or skills across a broader context, and to use new information in creative ways by finding ways to synthesize it with their own experience and existing knowledge base. Reflection assignments and formative assessments further build students’ metacognition of their own learning process. They also alert instructors to areas where students may need support, and suggest ways to make activities more effective in their next iteration.

On an individual level, fear is often to blame for why we resist changing our teaching methods. In addition to fears around trying something new and the risk of failure, faculty express understandable concerns about the potential for negative teaching evaluations. Indeed, as uncomfortable as instructors feel, students may be even more anxious when called upon to direct their own learning. Apprehension about grades and how they’ll be evaluated alongside peers, who might not contribute to the task at hand, can lead to vocal resistance and create a negative climate in the classroom.

My response to all the issues raised above is to remind faculty that active learning is best integrated within the broader structure of a class. Rely on backward design to first define specific goals and learning outcomes and then develop appropriate assignments to help students achieve them. Lectures can be useful, especially when addressing large introductory classes; but, they are made more effective by breaking them up and including activities that give students a moment to think about and reflect on the ideas presented. This not only allows them to process information, but also shows whether or not they have grasped the main points. Admittedly, the relative chaos of an actively engaged class talking in break-out groups, using computers to research a question, or exchanging materials as part of a hands-on project can be unnerving to anyone accustomed to speaking for 75 minutes before an attentive–or even unattentive–audience sitting quietly in their chairs. Instructors can build their comfort level by employing activities like small group discussions based on a specific question or one-minute writing prompts. Facilitating these types of interactions draws on familiar skills faculty regularly use when they help students hone ideas for a research project or recommend resources and strategies to improve performance in class.

Most of all, instructors should be transparent in explaining their goals and expectations to help put students at ease and build a community of trust. Provide and discuss rubrics you use to evaluate work in the class. Scaffold project components to provide students the chance to practice skills, receive feedback, and make revisions to their work prior to its final submission, and to ensure everyone’s prepared before in-class activities. Also, enlist students to help assess whether changes to the class are effective to meeting your goals. Students can provide valuable insight upon a project’s completion, but also consider conducting a mid-term evaluation and don’t be afraid to change your plan if something is not working. Students will respond more positively to an active classroom when they understand your motivations and see that you are willing to respond to their concerns by providing resources, feedback, and discussing solutions to any problems that occur.

For me, the move to an active learning model paralleled a growing interest in technology-enhanced teaching and the increased availability of online resources to provide art historical content. When faced with decisions about the use of such materials, I found I needed more certainty about what my students understood and whether they could apply this information to meet my expectations in the course. By focusing more on the question of student learning, I’ve felt free to experiment with many teaching methods, discover their benefits and limitations, and choose what I find works best. Change is never easy, and any shift in our teaching practice–especially after we’ve been doing it a while–takes time to adjust, refine, and adapt to our own style and personality. While it may be awkward at first, we owe it to our students to try different approaches and make our own decisions, and in the process, become better teachers.


About the Author
Virginia Spivey

Virginia Spivey, Ph.D.

Virginia B. Spivey is an independent art historian and educator based in Washington D.C.. For over 18 years, she worked in museum and academic settings including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Georgetown University, and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and she has twice received institutional teaching awards. She is a contributing editor at ArtHistoryTeachingResources.org, where she is project leader for Art History Pedagogy and Practice, an academic e-journal slated to launch in 2016.