But We Love Taking Notes!

As a classroom teacher, I worked hard to create active learning experiences for my students. Rather than lecture on supply and demand, I ran a wheat-market simulation that brought the market price to life. Students worked together to write causal arrows connecting two points in American history. In pairs, 8th graders made pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian propaganda films to demonstrate their mastery of modern middle eastern history and media bias. Engaging, active experiences like this take a phenomenal amount of preparation and, at times, I would resort to lecture and note-taking. I distinctly remember a class of students telling me how much they loved note-taking when I preemptively apologized for what I thought would be a boring class session. They loved taking notes. But were my students learning more?

A recent research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Louis Deslauriers et al. and summarized in the Harvard Gazette suggests that my intuition – active learning is more meaningful – was correct. Indeed, students learned more from active-learning strategies such as working in small groups to solve problems. Engaging students, circulating to guide their work, and brief discussions of common misconceptions and struggles was more effective than a lecture on the topic.

Graphic from  Harvard Gazette

Graphic from Harvard Gazette

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Interestingly, though, students believed that they learned more from lectures – “But we love taking notes!” Why? Active learning is hard and lecture is easy. “Deep learning is hard work,” says Deslauriers. “The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are.” Our students mistake the easy process of listening and writing notes for better understanding. To learn most effectively, though, we must do the hard work; we must actively learn.

What does this mean for MTS? First, we are going to continue to pursue active learning for our students. This year we have our Project Based Learning Fellows, a cohort of teachers working together to implement multi-day and multi-week active learning experiences. Over the past week, I have watched 5th graders engage with factors through building shapes, writing multiplication problems, and defining words such as “product,” and arriving at their own deeper understanding of the volume calculation – all forms of active learning. The Workshop Model in Humanities is another way our students are learning actively day to day.

Second, we will talk with our students about how active learning is more effective than lecture. In the Deslauriers study, students quickly embraced active learning when they saw the evidence that this work is more effective than lecture.

Finally, we will talk with our oldest students about how they can bring the active learning strategies they learn at MTS to lecture-based classes in high school. By writing and then solving practice math problems, notes on sine and cosine can come to life. By discussing “what would Tybalt do?” a professor’s statement that he is hotheaded is given new meaning.

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Deslauriers and colleagues have reinvigorated my belief in active learning and helped me understand why my students loved the lessons I found so boring. This research confirms my belief that we need to provide active learning while also ensuring our students are ready for some of the lectures to come – they will surely enjoy those.