Principles of Active Learning
Up to Doug Brent's Papers on Rhetoric and Composition
Doug Brent
University of Calgary

Knowledge Received/Knowledge Constructed:
Principles of Active Learning in the Disciplines

A Keynote Address Presented at the
Teaching and Learning and Writing Across the Curriculum
Faculty Development Workshop
Laurentian University
May 1, 1996

Sometimes I read the exams or term papers at the end of a course and say to myself, "I taught them everything I know and they still know nothing" It's nice to know I'm not alone, though. According to one study, introductory psychology students who were tested four months after the course scored only 8 percent better than students who had never taken the course at all (Rickard 151-52).

Obviously, students just don't absorb material very well from traditional presentational teaching. During the first ten minutes of a lecture, students retain about 70% of the information presented. During the last ten minutes, they retain less than 20% (McKeachie 72).

It's tempting to blame the audience. Postman is probably right: television has conditioned us all to reach for a channel changer as soon as anything falls below the required number of jolts per minute. But there's more to it than that. Current-traditional presentation style simply does not take into account the realities of how people learn.

I don't have to argue against the "banking" theory of education, in which we fill students with data and they hand it back on exams. This is a dead horse that doesn't need any more flogging. It is clear that knowledge, not data, is the important outcome of education, and that knowledge is actively constructed by establishing links between existing knowledge and new information. When students retain data just long enough to retrieve it for an exam and then flush their mental toilets to make room for more, they do so because we have never helped them make it into knowledge in the first place. It has remained well, you get the idea.

But it is only lately that we have begun to realize how thoroughly situated this knowledge-making process is. "Situated cognition" is a name given to a group of theories that relate the knowledge-making process, not just to specific physical contexts, but more important, to social and linguistic contexts. We make knowledge as part of a community of practice in which people do things together and talk about what they do. As Jean Lave puts it, "Learning, thinking and knowing are relations among people engaged in activity in, with, and arising from the socially and culturally structured world." (Lave 67)

Lave contrasts two communities of practice. One is a supermarket meat department. Apprentice meatcutters are put to work where they can be the most efficient, at the wrapping machine. But the wrapping machine is in a different room from the cold room in which journeymen prepare meat. As a result, the apprentices have no opportunity to become what Lave calls "legitimate peripheral participants" in the community of practice. They have to learn to cut meat by depending on their formal training rather than by hanging around the meatcutters and gradually doing more of what they do.

In contrast, apprentice midwives in Yucatan are usually daughters of senior midwives. They see the business of midwifery come and go through the house, and as they get older they accompany their mothers as they attend births, help out with some of the simpler procedures, and eventually begin to take over as they move from the margin to the centre of the community. In this scenario, "Broad exposure to ongoing practice . . . is a demonstration of the goals toward which newcomers are expected to move. Knowledge and skill develop in the process and as an integral part of the process of becoming like master practitioners within a community of practice." (Lave 71)

The typical presentation-style classroom reminds me more of the supermarket than of the community of midwives. While we make knowledge in the back room, our students sit where they can be most efficient, safely ensconced at the knowledge-wrapping machine.

I'd rather teach midwives than meat wrappers. The question is, how do we structure our classrooms to make this happen, especially as classes get bigger, we get busier, and students get more in a hurry to finish their education before they are $50,000 in debt?

Let's look at the community of practice our students are striving to enter. They are not just learning to cut meat or to help mothers deliver babies. They are learning to become legitimate participants in a culture that values certain forms of thought as well as patterns of practice.

The community of practice that makes up the academic culture is above all a textualized, symbolic world. Rhetorical analysis of discourse communities has shown that the forms of thought of an academic community are encoded into, or better, constituted by, its reading and writing conventions. The conventions of, say, a Physics lab report or a Nursing literature review are not just superficial ways of structuring the same sort of knowledge. Beyond and indeed within the conventions about where the footnotes go and how the introduction and conclusion are worded lie deep assumptions about what counts as a worthwhile problem to investigate, what might be said about that problem, what counts as good evidence for a claim, and perhaps most important, how that particular text is situated with reference to the other texts in the discipline.

Charles Bazerman, for example, shows how the conventional structure and language of the scientific report reproduces assumptions about how what science is and how it is to be done. Standards of proof such as closeness of fit, discreteness, robustness, and reproducibility are encoded into the discourse practices. By creating expectations for these standards in the reader, texts do not merely reflect the discipline. In an important sense they create it.

This situatedness means that learning to write and writing to learn are intimately connected. To learn to write in a discipline means learning to constitute the mindset of that discipline. In practical terms, this means that reading and writing is not a formal skill that can be relegated to the English department or writing centre. It is a substantive skill which the English department or writing centre must help students construct along with the disciplinary specialists who maintain the academic domains in which it is used. These individual sites of local knowledge that constitute disciplines can be thought of as particular passages in a conversation that constitutes the larger academic culture.

The "conversation" metaphor is from Kenneth Burke's Philosophy of Literary Form:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
The Philosophy of Literary Form 110-111.
In the academic world, much of this conversation takes place as an exchange of texts scholarly papers written, read, responded to, embedded in and referred to by other scholarly papers. But that textual conversation is heavily embedded in another informal conversation that takes place in the hallways, in the coffee lounge, and at conferences, usually in the bar where people can stop listening to tedious monologues like this one and start really talking about what they're doing.

This conversation is not only the way knowledge is made about specific pieces of academic "content." William Perry, Mary Belenky and others suggest that immersion in an intellectual and social community is a vital support for young people in the process of maturing into fully functioning, critically thinking, knowledge-constructing adults. By engaging in the social exploration of knowledge and self, students become capable of metacognition: the ability not just to think, but to think about what you are thinking about.

This presents us with a challenge.

Students are hardly "legitimate peripheral participants" when they read a predigested textbook, mine the library for research material once or twice, and turn in one or two pieces of written work which are returned with a grade and a few cryptic comments. Here the emphasis is too much on the peripheral and not enough on the practitioner. Current-traditional practices of reading and writing just don't encourage students to use texts as part of an epistemic conversation.

Right now I have time only for a few brief suggestions as to how active learning can structure reading and writing activities in the context of academic discourse communities.

First, we must integrate texts and talk more dynamically. Even if the classroom is structured around discussion, this will not be an epistemic environment if the teacher asks questions to which she already knows the answer and then waits an estimated average of .9 seconds before filling in the silence with an answer or another prompt ("Slow Down"). Neither will the traditional "group project," which is really a traditional term paper written by three people instead of one. Students usually hate these projects because they take three times as long to do as doing it on your own for relatively little visible reward. And they're right.

The kind of conversation I'm talking about is not tacked onto a course as an extra. It's drawn through the entire structure of the course. I'll talk more in my workshop about some specific ways of doing this. For now, I'll just list what I think are the most important features of texts in a truly social learning environment. This doesn't mean that we can send students away in September and tell them to drop by in April for their marks. Being a "legitimate peripheral participantr" means getting into a lot of jams. This is exactly the point. Learning occurs at the point where students are in a little over their heads, where conceptual gaps open and create problems that can only be solved by applying new knowledge and new forms of thinking which must be constructed for the occasion. The gap creates the occasion for the conversations that fill it. Our role is to be part of those conversations, providing modelling and guidance, letting students pick our brains when they find that there are things which they need to pick them for. Any administrator who thinks that these techniques will save time had better think again but at least we may be able to get better results for the time we spend.

The best place for this sort of conversation is in a class of twenty or twenty-five, in a nice room with comfortable furniture. In the absence of this glorious dream of our youth, we have to teach in classrooms that look more like a factory floor than a coffee house. But can apply some of these ideas even in this hostile environment. (I imagine you'll get more on this from Jennifer Keck's talk later today.) Students can break up spells of listening with brief reading, writing and talking activities. (Bean, Drenk and Lee have some ideas on how students can do useful writing activities that will fit on a 3 x 5 card. This is on the bibliography under "Microtheme Strategies.")

Your handout shows how a large lecture section might be structured as a more active social learning environment. You'll notice that Jenkins' style here is considerably more directive than mine. He keeps talking about how the lecturer takes it on herself to "answer the question," for instance. But the point is the same: nothing holds still as texts and talk, listening and speaking, continually alternate. The catatonic state that settles on an audience after the first few minutes of a lecture never has a chance to develop.

You can make large groups less directive by breaking up large lecture-based classes. Rather than having formal "tutorials" once a week as adjuncts to the lecture, the lecture can become an adjunct to the tutorials. The scheduled class time, possibly the only time that all students in a group will have in common, can become a time for working together in smaller groups, in the classroom, in the library, in the coffee shop. Instead of fonts of information, the lectures can become sites at which students gather to hear advice on what to do in their groups and to make brief presentations of their results.

You may worry that you won't be able to "cover the material." You're right but you probably won't anyway if the statistics I mentioned earlier are even half accurate. Even if you cover it, they'll forget it. When students get out of the university into actual communities of practice they will "cover the material" by re-learning that which proves to be really important "on the outside." While they're here, we need to give them the tools for doing that.

Finally, let's take a look at how technology figures in this picture.

On its face, information technology looks like an ideal medium for active learning. George Landow argues that hypertext will make students more active learners because it is impossible not to be active while following and creating links to widely dispersed data. Computer conferencing, electronic mail, interactive tutorials, all seem tailor-made for making education more learner-centred.

But like everything else, this technology can be subverted if it is only used to support current-traditional teaching practices. Working through a list of readings isn't any more active if the readings are posted on a web site instead of in the reserve reading room. Summaries and commentaries aren't any more active if they are e-mailed directly to the teacher who ends up being the only one reading them.

To take full advantage of information technology, we need to exploit not just its potential for presenting information but its potential for connecting people to people. Positioned somewhere between writing and speech, electronic writing can allow students to create provisional texts which are fluid and malleable. They can trade them, comment on them, embed parts of one text in another, and most important, talk about them without having to accomplish the almost impossible task of getting conflicting schedules to jibe. And they can publish them where everyone, not just the teacher, can read them and use them as part of the slow progress of the community towards knowledge.

In short, active learning involves an act of faith. When responsibility for learning is turned over to the students, they will miss things. They will get some things wrong. But I take heart from the words of one of my students:
The first time I read that passage from Burke, I didn't understand it very well. When I had to work together with my group to explain how it related to rhetoric, I had to read it again, and I understood it a little better. And then when we had to defend our interpretation against Group 3's interpretation, I went back and read it a third time, and then I really thought I understood it.
Maybe she didn't really understand it, at least not the way I understand it. But she did read Kenneth Burke three times, with attention. For me that marks her as a midwife, not as a meat wrapper.

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science. University of Wosconsin Press, 1988.

Bean, John, Dean Drenk, and F. D. Lee. "Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills." C. Williams Griffen, Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982: 27-38.

Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. Basic: 1986.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.

Landow, George. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Lave, Jean. "Situating Learning in Communities of Practice." In Lauren Resnick, John M. Levine and Stephanie D. Teasley. Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. Washington: American Psychological Association, 1991.

McKeachie, W. J. Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher. Lexington, Mass: Heath, 1986. Cited Meyers and Jones, 14.

Perry, William. "Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning." In Arthur W. Chickering, The Modern American College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 1981: 76-114.

Rickard, H., Rogers, R, Ellis, N., and Beidleman, W. "Some Retention, But Not Enough." Teaching of Psychology 1988. 15, 151-152. Cited Meyers and Jones 15.

"Slow Down, You Move Too Fast." Phi Delta Kappan 69(1987) 234. Cited Meyers and Jones, 30