What We’re Reading: Actual Learning vs. The Feeling of Learning

A drawing of two classrooms: in one, the teacher is lecturing happily to students. In another, students are doing active learning while the teacher looks on, pondering.

Illustration by Clare Reid

Illustration by Clare Reid

illustration by Clare Reid

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019) is a great demonstration of why teaching only with our guts isn’t enough and why outsourcing overall evaluation of our teaching and our students’ learning to the students themselves is done at our own peril. The article, aptly titled “Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom,” confirms the consensus of several decades of research on teaching and learning—that active learning is significantly more effective than mere lecture—but adds a critical and highly provocative twist: actual student learning doesn’t necessarily align with student feelings of learning or student preferences for instruction methods. 

The researchers took a large-enrollment introductory physics course (149 students) that already used an “active lecture” approach (i.e., mostly lecture, but with plenty of interactive engagement), and then switched things up in weeks 12 and 13. In week 12 the class was randomly split into two groups, with half the class receiving skillfully polished and executed “passive lecture” classes (i.e., lecture-only) and the other half receiving carefully planned and skillfully executed active learning (with no lecture). During week 13 conditions were repeated, but the groups receiving active learning vs. passive lecture were switched. After each week, students were tested on the material covered and were also asked a series of questions about teaching preferences. In both groups, students tested better in the wake of their active learning week, but students preferred their experience in the passive lecture.

For me, there are three important takeaways here:

  • Research in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is important. As with so much in human experience, we’re often not terribly good judges of how things are going—even for ourselves—and hence the research really does matter. Even if we or our students or both prefer lecture, that’s not justification for lecturing—not if our goal is to maximize student learning. Careful research on teaching and learning is crucial to all of us involved in education
  • Faculty need to be aware of the distinction between actual learning and students’ feelings of learning so that they can design their classes and interpret student evaluations accordingly.
  • A critical part of that design needs to include opportunities to pull back the curtain and educate students on learning. In addition to being a good teaching practice on its own, transparency and explicitness may be necessary to avoid frustrating students and to optimize their active-learning gains.

This last point, though only briefly mentioned in one of the essay’s final paragraphs, is for me the most important. If we want to take full advantage of the research on active learning in order to improve our students’ learning, we can’t merely implement effective teaching strategies. It’s critical that we likewise teach students about this research. The research says active learning works, whatever students’ feelings, and transparency in this area provides a means of helping students to be more self-aware learners and thus empowered drivers of their own education.