Even a great lecture isn’t good enough

What’s one thing you could do tomorrow that would definitely engage more students?

That’s easy. Inject your lesson with more opportunities to participate.

It sounds too simple to be true — how could asking a question, giving a formative quiz, or allowing five minutes to think/pair/share really make any difference? And doesn’t everyone already do that?

Sadly, many of us do not.

A few months ago, I spoke with Dr. Richard Felder, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. Felder, an extremely popular engineering professor, has led 600+ workshops on active learning designed to break college professors from the lecture-only habit.

He became interested in active-learning techniques when he realized that his students weren’t remembering or understanding his lectures. It’s not because he was a poor lecturer.

“I was quite good at it,” he said. “The students loved it, and I won some awards and so on. But over a period of time I started to become more and more conscious of the fact that things were not going the way I wanted. I’d give these brilliant lectures and all of the students would think it was wonderful, that it was beautifully clear… then they’d take a test and come back with 47/100, a lot of them, and something was wrong.”

Rather than blaming his students, Felder questioned his own practices. He read the research and discovered active learning, then he became its biggest promoter.

When I called Felder to talk about using simulations, I expected him to define active learning as something complicated, like a simulation, group project, game or class discussion.

He surprised me when he said even activities that take as little as 10 seconds can make a profound difference in student understanding and retention.

“Ask a question, tell the students ‘I’m going to give you 10 seconds, then I’m going to call on somebody,’” he said. “That can have a dramatic impact on the quality of learning that takes place.”

My thought at the time was “yes, of course, but K-12 teachers already do that.” And then, this week, I read a report on a massive study by the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development, and I realized I was wrong.

Actually, K-12 teachers don’t give students nearly enough opportunities to respond. Over seven years, the researchers observed more than 7,000 individual classes in 50 different schools. In each class they tracked one randomly selected student to observe for 15 minutes.

What they found: In 64% of high school classrooms, the target student “was given no opportunity to respond.”

How much difference did it make? According to the study, enough difference to distinguish high-achieving schools from low-achieving schools, even if they were both high-poverty schools.

According to a report in the louisville.edu magazine, “The average student in the high-achieving school had approximately 250 more opportunities to respond per week than the average student in the low-achieving schools.”

That’s shocking — and distressing.

Active learning isn’t difficult to implement, and it does make a huge difference. We need to figure out what is standing in the way, and we need to change it. Preferably, tomorrow.