Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Harder You Make the Students Work, the Less They Think They Learn

Louis Deslauriers, 
Harvard University
Deslauriers et al. (2019) have identified a curious problem for keen teachers: if you have students actively involved they learn more, but think they learn less. This could be a problem where teachers are evaluated based on student surveys. 

The authors conducted an experiment using introductory university physics students. One group had conventional lectures, the other used active techniques, but with the same materials. The latter group liked the active learning, and learned more, but did not think they did. The authors speculate this may be because the students are rating how smoothly the class ran, rather than how much they learned (an active class is inevitably a more messy activity than a lecture). A second theory was students new to university were not good at knowing how much they have learned (I wonder if students ever learn this). Thirdly, the authors suggest that students are not used to a "student-centered" classroom (that would not be the case in Australia, where secondary schools are very "active").

The authors suggest instructors explain the value of active learning at the beginning of class, along with a diagnostic test, so students better understand how much they learn. However, they do not make the obvious suggestion: student feedback scores should not be used to measure the quality of teaching. While teaching students more about how they learn will be good for their learning, it should not be used to simply bolster results on a survey of questionable validity, and I have found a far better way to game the student surveys. ;-).


Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences116(39), 19251-19257. URL

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