As I’ve written about before, we’ve moved Intro Bio towards a flipped model: students have to do pre-readings (and sometimes watch videos) prior to coming to class, they get quizzed before every class (on both the pre-readings and material from the earlier class), and we’ve incorporated much more active learning into the classroom (e.g., clickers, drawing and interpreting figures). I am 100% certain that my students learned more with this format. I haven’t yet done a formal analysis of the Bloom’s taxonomy levels of exam questions, but I know I was writing many more questions that required application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation than I did in the past, and the mean exam grades stayed about the same. In other words, the exams were harder but the students did just as well.
So why the hesitation to recommend this approach? Part of it is the personal cost in terms of how much effort it took on my part. Last semester was pretty stressful for me. But part of it is also because I don’t think all that effort will be rewarded in terms of increased student evaluations. In my case, my teaching evaluations last semester were almost identical (within a few hundreths of a point on a 5 point scale) to what they were when I taught with a much more traditional format. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky that evaluations didn’t decrease, because evidence suggests that, all else being equal, more effective teaching strategies leave students frustrated.
I’ve been thinking about this as I read through Make It Stick, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel. I’m still reading it, but I’ve found it to be a really engaging read related to how to best promote learning. In what I’ve read so far, I’ve been struck by statements like “When learning is harder, it’s stronger and lasts longer” (page 9). I was especially struck by this passage where they compare how interleaved learning (where students move between tasks before fully mastering any one of them) versus massed practice (where students practice-practice-practice one skill, getting that down before moving on to learning the next skill):
The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. Teachers and students sense the difference. They can see that their grasp of each element is coming more slowly, and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used. Teachers dislike it because it feels sluggish. Students find it confusing: they’re just starting to get a handle on new material and don’t feel on top of it yet when they are forced to switch. But the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it.
– Make It Stick, page 50
For example, if you teach a taxonomy course, you might think it makes sense to drill students on one group, having them get that down before moving on to the next, but research (including a study on learning bird taxonomy) shows that interleaving the different groups is more effective since it allows students to figure out what traits are common between the groups and which allow you to distinguish them (see chapter 3 in Make It Stick for more discussion of this.) The problem is that:
Despite these results, the students who participated in these experiments persisted in preferring massed practice, convinced that it served them better. Even after they took the test and could have realized from their own performance that interleaving was the better strategy for learning, they clung to their belief that [massed practice] was better. The myths of massed practice are hard to exorcise, even when you’re experiencing the evidence yourself.
– Make It Stick, page 54
For me, I plan to increase the amount I use interleaved learning (and the other practices summarized in Make It Stick); thanks to having tenure, I don’t have to worry nearly as much about potential negative impacts on my teaching evaluations if students are frustrated and unable to accurately evaluate that they are learning more. (I would, of course, prefer that my students enjoy my class and like me as an instructor, but it is more important to me to be an effective teacher than a popular one.)
But I am now in the position of advising junior faculty. Should I recommend to them that they use they use this approach? Even aside from the personal costs mentioned in my earlier post, I’m not sure. It might be in their best interest for them to use a more-or-less traditional approach, and take baby steps towards active learning. At a research university, teaching evaluations are not the most important factor in a tenure dossier, but they are considered. Life is easier when teaching evaluations are good. In this case, I struggle with what to recommend because I have an obligation to look out for the best interests of my junior colleagues, but also for the students they teach, and what is best for them seems at odds. The calculus is probably even more complicated for faculty whose primary responsibility is teaching.
For those of you who are pretenure: how do you weigh the costs and benefits of different pedagogical techniques? Does fear of lower teaching evaluations keep you from using more active techniques, and especially something like interleaving? For those of you in the position of mentoring folks who are pre-tenure: what do you recommend? How do you resolve the conflict to your junior colleagues and the students at your university? And for those who have teaching-intensive, non-tenure-track positions: how do you balance the costs and benefits? How do you think they differ compared to those of folks on the tenure track?