Whispered questions: Is active learning ever *not quite* the answer?

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite faculty members and I were talking on the phone. She began telling me a story about a recent situation in which her students had completely failed to construct knowledge together during an active learning exercise. Everyone was frustrated. The hour was wasted. It’s okay, I told her–we all [platitudes about how the very best teachers learn through experimentation and occasional flops. I’ve flopped; you’ve flopped; it happens]. Do you think…maybe just TELLING them some of these things would have helped? she asked. Was active learning the WRONG tactic? At that point, I realized that we were whispering–and it wasn’t just the thin walls. We felt that we were speaking the unspeakable.

This conversation clearly stuck with me, and several days ago, I was thrilled to connect with David Goobar’s recent article in Chronicle Vitae, “Is it Ever OK to Lecture?” This good-natured and pragmatic article begins with the story of one of Goobar’s graduate teaching assistants: a young man, deeply dedicated to active learning, who brings this question to the author.

The article has several major points that are of use to academic librarians: (1) The article provides several specific strategies for overlaying brief lectures with tools or activities for actively gathering information. (2) When we tell graduate assistants and other new teachers (or teachers who are revising their methods) to use active learning strategies, we need to coach them. Active learning strategies need to be selected and used well. (3) Sometimes *telling* students about areas of knowledge that you know in depth gets them off to an efficient start in their learning, which supports & accelerates the active part of your class time. I appreciated the article’s brief mention of types of knowledge that students may struggle to develop through active learning.

Goobar’s thoughts are particularly helpful to me as I work to make my own information literacy instruction more and more active. I appreciate learning more about when & how to strategically supplement active learning with straight-up information.

I may report back as I experiment with some of the tools mentioned in the study — such as the “quiz on the go.” Please let me know if you try them! Here’s to honest questions. May we never hesitate to ask them!

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