Sunday, September 13, 2015

No, College Lectures Are Not "Unfair"

In her recent New York Times essay "Are College Lectures Unfair?" Annie Murphy Paul, a science writer, asks "Does the college lecture discriminate? Is it biased against undergraduates who are not white, male, and affluent?" She spends the rest of the essay arguing the affirmative, claiming that "a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation college students." She cites various studies that find that "active learning" and "flipped classroom" pedagogical techniques lead to the biggest improvements in performance among the groups who do the worst in traditional lecture-format classes.

Unfortunately, while it may well be true that flipping the classroom (having students watch video lectures at home and using classroom time for problem-solving and discussion) and making learning more active (increasing low-stakes quizzes, which enhance memory for concepts) are excellent ideas—and I personally think they are—the argument that the use of lectures has anything to do with fairness and discrimination is simply erroneous.

Here's why. First, if one group of students tends to perform better than another under a particular instructional regime, then it is likely that any change that improves everyone's performance (as active learning does, according to studies cited by Ms. Paul) should benefit most the group that starts out doing worst. This is a simple function of the fact that grades have maximum values, so there is less room for improvement for students who are already doing well. If this point isn't clear, imagine a hypothetical educational intervention that leads to every student knowing the answer to five particular questions on a 100-question final exam. The best-prepared students would probably have known several of those answers absent the intervention, while the least-prepared students would have good chances of not not having known them. Therefore, the least-prepared students might gain as much as 4 or 5% on their final exam grades, but the best-prepared students might gain as little as 1 or 0%. This would narrow the achievement gap between those groups. Any intervention that results in more learning is likely to have a similar pattern of effects.

So active learning should be good for any students who start out doing worse in general, not just for minority, low-income, or first-generation students. As Ms. Paul notes, "poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools" and get to college "with less background knowledge." Suppose you tried active learning in a school where the students were overwhelmingly the children of white, middle-class, college-educated parents. You would still expect the lowest-performers among those students to benefit the most from the improved methods. Likewise, the best-performing minority students should get less out of improved pedagogy than the worst-performing minority students. In other words, the value of active learning for traditionally underperforming groups of students has everything to do with the fact that those students have underperformed, and nothing to do with the fact that they come from minority groups.

Now to the question of whether older pedagogical approaches "discriminate" against those minority groups, as Ms. Paul says they do. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, to discriminate is "to make distinctions on the basis of class or category without regard to individual merit, especially to show prejudice on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or a similar social factor." Teaching a course in an old-fashioned lecture format, though it may often be less effective than teaching in flipped or active formats, and for that reason may result in lower grades for some types of students than for others, makes no distinctions between classes or categories of people, and therefore cannot be a form of discrimination. Indeed, any inferior form of instruction should lead to wider differences between students who start at different levels.

Consider the limiting case: imagine a "form of instruction" that is no instruction at all: the professor never issues a syllabus or even shows up, but still gives the final exam at the end of the semester. Students who started out with the most "background knowledge" about the topic will still know the most, and students who started out knowing the least will still know the least. All pre-existing differences between ethnic groups and any other student groups will remain unchanged. On the other end of the instructional spectrum, suppose the professor's teaching is so perfect that every student learns every bit of the material: then there will be no differences between any groups, because all students will receive grades of 100%. Note that none of this concerns what groups the students are part of—it can all be explained entirely by the artifact of high-quality instruction benefiting poorer-performing students more than better-performing students. Therefore, Ms. Paul's essay uses the words "biased" and "discriminating" incorrectly, with the pernicious effect of accusing anyone who doesn't flip their classroom or give lots of quizzes of being prejudiced against minority students.

For what it's worth, I have been truly impressed by the growing body of research on the science of learning. I think it's one of the most exciting practical achievements of cognitive psychology, and I am trying to incorporate more of it into my own teaching. But I also believe that good, engaging lectures have their place, and may be more effective in some disciplines than others. To be clear, I have no objections to any of the research Ms. Paul cites in her essay. (Indeed, I have not even read most of that research, because what's at issue here is not the scientific results, but the meaning Ms. Paul ascribes to them. I've assumed that she described all the results accurately in her essay. If the researchers somehow managed to separate the effects of minority status and baseline knowledge or performance in their analysis of the active learning effects, Ms. Paul doesn't say anything about how they did it—and since that analysis would be the logical lynchpin for her claims of bias, discrimination, and unfairness, it is negligent to ignore it.) We have learned a lot about effective teaching methods, but none of it justifies the sloppy, inflammatory claim that lectures are "biased" and "discriminate" against students from minority, low-income, or nontraditional backgrounds.

45 comments:

  1. Very important observation.

    Coupe questions regarding the statement:
    "For what it's worth, I have been truly impressed by the growing body of research on the science of learning. I think it's one of the most exciting practical achievements of cognitive psychology, and I am trying to incorporate more of it into my own teaching..."

    Do any cognitive psychology researchers in particular stand out, regarding this growing body of research? Would you recommend any specific books that provide a clear and detailed overview?

    Thank you,
    -Vince Alia
    Vince.alia89@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, I would highly recommend these very readable books:
    "Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (Harvard University Press, 2014)
    "Why Don't Students Like School?" by Dan Willingham (Jossey-Bass, 2010)
    "Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn" by Hattie and Yates (Routledge, 2013)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I am profoundly in your debt!

      Delete
    2. I would also recommend the free e-book by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (http://www.teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php), the free summary from Deans for impact (http://www.deansforimpact.org/the_science_of_learning.html), The summary of top 20 principles of learning from APA (http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.aspx) and at the risk of being self-aggrandizing, my video series on the cognitive principles of effective teaching (https://www.samford.edu/employee/faculty/cognitive-principles-of-effective-teaching)

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    3. Agree with Make it Stick- fabulous read packed full of empirical evidence,yet written in an understandable and engaging manner.

      Delete
    4. Agree with Make it Stick- fabulous read packed full of empirical evidence,yet written in an understandable and engaging manner.

      Delete
  3. I'm not sure what my takeaway should be from you post. If we want to improve performance of traditionally underrepresented groups in higher education, shouldn't we adopt more effective teaching methods?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Chris, here's what I wrote in response to one of our friends on Facebook: Well, speaking as a woman and as someone who came from a low-income family and was first to go to college, I found the piece patronizing and just plain wrong. A good lecture by a dynamic person with passion for her subject can be incredibly inspiring - much more so than listening to some doltish student who hasn't bothered to do the reading. What I find insulting is the idea that people from these backgrounds somehow lack the ability to sit quietly and think and listen - like we all want to run around and maybe fingerpaint or something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. How bizarre - I must have once created an account called "Prof. FedUp"! Anyway, Fernanda here. :)

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  5. I don't usually comment online, but I have a question that bothers me.

    Regarding Ms.Paul's assertion that a lecture based education is "passive," failing to prompt students "to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients" ...Is it possible that the effectiveness of the "active" style of education, e.g. students watching videos and doing online coursework at home while workshopping in the classroom, merely is a consequence of the poor study habits of students? When given outside coursework with accountability (videos and online quizzes, etc.) as compared to unchecked reading assignments, that students are required to fulfill their outside responsibilities and thus have greater levels of success?

    I struggle with the semantics of this conversation. My college lectures never felt passive – I was under the impression that the meat of the work was done outside of class, struggling with readings and materials; class time and lecture was spent with the Professor guiding the class through the material together, and to help direct the struggle and the questions, though not the conclusions. A lecture only seems passive when a student treats a lecture like Cliff Notes, rather than a commentary to be questioned and considered. And that returns to the nature of the students study habits, and how they view the nature of the education they pursue...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No learning is passive. "Passive learning" is an oxymoron.

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    2. No learning is passive. "Passive learning" is an oxymoron.

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  6. Is the student interested in learning about the subject, and does the teacher communicate clearly and with a deep interest in the content, which must be appropriate for the course?

    Too often education professors seem to argue for group learning (at its best) against lecturing (at its stereotyped worst). Well, of course group learning will be better if that is the scenario.

    There's much inculcation of prejudice against lecturing per se. With that kind of attitude, of course even a good lecture will seem to be a failure.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you! That was organized, to the point, and over all just a fantastic article. Thank you.

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  8. I myself am a professor of education. Chris, I disagree with your arguments and will explain why.

    As far as I can tell, you recognize that there are better methods of instruction than pure lecture. This is true. A significant body of research that has demonstrated the relative ineffectiveness of isolated lecture to support higher order cognitive and attitudinal growth (e.g. Cashin 1985; Day 1980; Frederick 1999; Omelicheva & Avdeyeva, 2008; Renner 1993). It isn't just what we learn, but the depth with which we learn it and the degree to which we can (and do) use it. Lecture (IN ISOLATION) is ineffective to this end, and is second (or 30th) fiddle to many other instructional methods.

    Note: Lecture in conjunction with other instructional methods can still be effective and still has a place.

    You then build your case about Ms. Paul's alleged wrongness with two points:
    • regression to the mean
    • definition of discrimination

    Your first argument is based on truth. Students who struggle more are more likely to benefit from ANY change than those who are already doing well. So? When an improved instructional method is used, everyone would benefit because it is an improved instructional method. Those who were strong previously will grow yet more and be able to use it and recall the lessons better because the methods were improved. Those who would have experienced greater degreees of failure will now experience more success. That is, the mean success of the class will theoretically improve. You summarize your poin saying, "the value of active learning for traditionally underperforming groups of students has everything to do with the fact that those students have underperformed, and nothing to do with the fact that they come from minority groups." Here you blindly assume that underperformance is not linked to SES, for example, despite abundant literature that demonstrates that SES is the #1 predictor of achievement, and achievement gaps (on the large scale) do exist between groups based on race, ethnicity, and disability. In short, it is your word against a great deal of research.

    EVEN if you were right, Ms. Paul's approach would suggest closing of the achievement gap between lower and higher achievers. And that is a good thing. I just don't see the significance of your point in suggesting that Ms. Paul is wrong.

    As for your second point, you have again mis-stepped. Discrimination need not be (and usually is not) intentional. We are referring to systematic discrimination. As a person with a hearing impairment, if I were to return as a student to a lecture hall with no support, I would be being discriminated against. The professor, I am sure, would not be doing it on purpose, but the discrimination would be very real as an effect occurring between my environment and myself.

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  9. Continued...

    Being a person with a hearing impairment predisposed me, in other words, to unintentional, but systematic discrimination in that setting.

    So it is with people belonging to other social groups. We aren't talking about skin pigmentation. There are different subcultures in America that are formed around different linguistic and social traditions. Different people may display learning differences based on the SES or other social cultures from which they come here in America. Without knowing it, applying only one form of teaching may inadvertantly cause discrimination against certain groups.

    By applying quality, diverse teaching implicit to what Ms. Paul refers to as "active learning," results in greater opportunity for expression and engagement for *all* students, which is the epitome of anti-discrimination.

    I am afraid that your article, inasmuch as it is read and disseminated, may be understood as supporting lecture as fair for all. I don't actually think you believe that given your introduction, but the rest of your essay would make that an easy conclusion to draw.

    I would suggest that even if the only difference between students who did and did not gain from lecture was the amount of knowledge that they had coming into the class, that is enough. College isnt a place to just go and listen to lectures about things you already know. It is a place to learn new ideas. A place to find a voice. A place to learn to contribute. And that is something that must be open to all.

    ReplyDelete
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  11. Discrimination is a very painful thing to the person involved, and i would say that it would be better if no no one was to go through that path. 'are college lecturers unfair?' maybe, maybe not but i hope not as it would greatly affect the education of many.Reliable privacy policy

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