Professors concerned about rigor will often pack their courses with content in both assigned readings and in-class lectures. The traditional approach to teaching is to have students memorize information and then demonstrate their knowledge by taking examinations on the memorized material. This can certainly be an effective way to teach content. Many faculty seem to believe, however, that the more information they cram into a course, the more students will learn. One of us (Howard) recently had an undergraduate student, Shelby Waymire, refer to this as treating students as information dumpsters.
Why Students Are Not Information Dumpsters
There are two main problems with the approach of cramming as much material as possible into a course. First, too much material can result in students cramming for exams, but not retaining that material. An education with a short shelf life is not all that useful to students. Second, this approach focuses mainly on knowledge acquisition and ignores that there is more to learning than acquiring facts. Learning is also about acquiring skills. It is also about having an understanding of what memorized facts mean and how they relate to other facts. More importantly, learning is about acquiring the skill to use those facts in a variety of contexts.
Active Learning To Combat Dumpster Driving
Faculty often hear that they should use active learning approaches, and many exercises and techniques have been developed to apply this approach. It is assumed that active learning exercises are superior and should be frequently used. What is often missing, however, is a consideration of the underlying skill that any given exercise is intended to teach. Do not use active learning just to use it. It should be based on a specific course objective
Suggestions for Using Active Learning
Active learning approaches should be applied with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose will inform the best technique to use in the classroom. Some things to consider.
- Set course objectives to teach one or more specific skills, such as active listening, public speaking or technical writing. Before the course begins, think about what information and skills you want your students to retain from your class a few years down the road, and how to you can best help them learn and retain both.
- Consider various exercises and experiences to develop that skill. There can be a variety of ways that a given skill might be taught. Often the best way to teach a skill is to give students real projects to complete, such as a piece of research. We have both had students develop psychological scales as a class exercise. This teaches skills in research, scale development, statistics, writing (a written report is required), and speaking (students present their results). We have used this exercise for both graduate and undergraduate students.
- If feasible, let students create instead of redoing what has been done before. Using the above psychological scale example, we let students create their own constructs, write their own items, and even collect their own data. This is a better approach than asking students to evaluate an existing scale, or to provide a data set for them to analyze. Giving students the opportunity to create from scratch will result in them becoming personally invested and exploring their own ideas. It better teaches the skills intended.
- Build evaluation into the exercise and provide feedback. There should be some product that students submit (or present) that can allow instructors to evaluate student performance and the effectiveness of the exercise. Feedback to the students is also important for learning.
- Assignments do not have to be long. A simple exercise that can both increase student understanding of concepts and develop writing skill is to ask for a 1-sentence definition of a concept in the student’s own words. This exercise shows the instructor if students grasp a concept, and feedback can be given on the writing. Detailed feedback on even a single sentence can be very helpful, and for busy faculty, it does not take a great deal of time.
The most effective teachers do more than just impart information. They also teach skills that students can take with them after graduation. Teaching can be a balancing act between covering material and focusing on skill enhancement. Students will get the most out of classes that focus on both, and do not sacrifice one for the other. Advanced planning about what knowledge and skill a student should acquire and retain can help avoid treating them as information dumpsters.