Enhancing academic achievement by identifying and minimizing the impediments to active learning.

Author:Peters, Robert A.


The education and teaching literatures have extensively discussed active learning strategies and the benefits of implementing them, but have accorded minimal attention to the barriers to implementation. More specifically, active learning strategies such as application, discussion, group work, journaling, service learning, simulations, and students responding to questions or posing questions arising from the readings (Dietz-Uhler & Lanter, 2009; Hattery, 2003, Novak, 2002; Pollack & Motoike, 2006; Sands & Shelton, 2010; Schaefer & Zygmont, 2003) are credited with producing greater rates of deep learning and understanding than passive learning (Candela, Dalley, & Benzel-Lindley 2006; Novak, 2002). However, maximizing the rates of deep learning and understanding is dependent on counteracting student and faculty preferences for the polar opposite of active learning which is passive or stimulus-response learning. In the absence of overcoming these preferences, the inclusion of active learning strategies in MPA courses entails placing a thin veneer of active learning over the foundation of passive or stimulus-response learning. Under these conditions, faculty continue to minimize course preparation time while students are able to perpetuate the learned behaviors of limiting their responses to the procedures, knowledge, and skills addressed by the course while ignoring elements from other courses, knowledge, and skills that may be more appropriate or generate a deeper understanding of the topic. Due to operating within these parameters, the linkages developed between material discussed in the course and the students' preexisting knowledge structure are artificially limited along with the probability of recalling and utilizing the information at a later date. Nor is it possible to identify the components of the students' responses that are conditioned reactions to the stimuli generated by the assessment mechanism or indicators of deep learning and understanding (Billing, 2007; Connor-Greene, 2000; Doyle, 1988; Hay, 20007; Hay & Kinchin, 2008; Lithner, 2008; Taylor & White 2006; Watters & Watters, 2007).

There also are few instances in which the literature has examined the curricular implications of implementation even though it is a significant issue in the introduction of active learning strategies. The central challenge in executing active learning strategies is that they consume more time than stimulus-response/passive learning. Unless there is sufficient slack in the curriculum, the integration of active learning strategies into the MPA curriculum therefore necessitates a reduction in the volume of knowledge and skills addressed by the curriculum or an increase in the number of required credit hours.

Given the role of stimulus-response learning in inhibiting the realization of active learning's benefits, the next section provides a brief synopsis of stimulus-response learning and a description of the student and faculty preferences for this approach to education. The section also delineates some of the strategies for counteracting the preferences and thereby maximizing the extent to which active learning strategies foster deep learning and understanding. Due to active learning strategies requiring a greater amount of time to address topics, the subsequent section addresses strategies for prioritizing curriculum components, reducing the breadth of coverage, and integrating the remaining course materials. The final section summarizes the findings and examines the implications for MPA programs.


As implied by the nomenclature, stimulus-response learning entails students generating the appropriate responses to instructor-furnished stimuli. The process begins with lectures and the accompanying PowerPoint presentations that define the portions of assigned readings the instructor deems to be important and reinforces the definitions, methods, and interpretations conveyed by the assigned readings. Additional reinforcement is provided by problem sets, quizzes, objectives, and questions raised by the faculty member and the readings. By the time students sit for their exams, they have been conditioned to base their responses on the materials addressed by lectures and subsequent exercises, to disregard insights and relevant information gleaned from other courses and personal experience, to apply the same strategies for answering questions that were used for the problem sets and similar exercises, and to provide responses that replicate the ones generated by each of the previous steps. Due to students being conditioned to respond to key words and cues embedded in each step of the learning process, those who review the answers to exam questions cannot determine the extent to which the responses are unconscious reactions to stimuli or indicative of learning and understanding (Billing, 2007; Connor-Greene, 2000; Doyle, 1988; Lithner, 2008; Ogilvie, 2009; Taylor & White 2006; Watters & Watters, 2007).

Benefits of Stimulus-Response Learning Accruing to Students

Even though stimulus-response learning is not a vehicle for promoting deep learning and understanding or traits such as creativity and critical thinking, the benefits of stimulus-response learning produce a preference for the approach and a barrier to fully achieving the promise of active learning. One of the primary benefits accruing to students is the faculty assuming responsibility for the learning process and thereby enabling students to be passive recipients of the knowledge and skills their instructors pour into their heads (Albers, 2009). The perspective is reflected in the students' contention that the instructor did not explain the material in ways students could understand and course evaluation questions asking whether difficult material was explained to the students' satisfaction. In both instances, the absence of statements regarding the students' efforts to read and understand the material suggests insufficient comprehension and understanding is primarily the faculty's fault; they should have been a better teacher. Learning therefore is implicitly defined as a function of the instructor's abilities rather than a responsibility shared by both teacher and students.

The perception of faculty and student responsibilities is also reflected in the assumption that the instructor will tell students what they need to know (Brost & Bradley, 2006; Clump & Doll, 2007; Lord, 2008; Marchant, 2002). Under these conditions, students can choose to (1) forego, with impunity, reading the assigned materials, (2) read, but not invest sufficient time and energy in comprehending the materials, or (3) read and comprehend the materials. The frequency of students choosing the first option is suggested by the prevalence of aliteracy, i.e., the ability to read but the decision not to do so. Burchfield and Sappington (2000) concluded that a majority of undergraduates and approximately one-third of graduate students do not read the assigned materials. The preference for not reading or investing minimal effort in comprehension (Sappington, Kinsey & Munsayac, 2002) is also suggested by student responses to the author's open-end course evaluation questions. When asked to define the advantages and disadvantages of submitting concept maps before each set of assigned materials is discussed in class, approximately one-quarter of the students in a section of public budgeting and finance indicated the assignment forces them define the major concepts discussed in the readings and to map the relationships among the concepts. The use of the word "forced" suggests developing a deeper understanding of the material prior to class sessions was not a customary activity.

A second "benefit" accruing to students is minimizing the volume of material they are expected to study, know, and apply (Boesen, Lithner & Palm, 2010; Brost & Bradley, 2006, Clump & Doll, 2007; Ogilvie, 2009). Since the lecture and PowerPoint slides define components of the readings the instructor thinks are important (Adams, 2006), the students can, with minimal risk, focus on these elements and ignore the remainder of the readings. The power of the unwritten agreement is evidenced by a student's response to one of the author's open-end course evaluation questions. At the conclusion of the semester in which the author experimented with basing the course grade entirely on class participation, the student indicated he preferred the traditional exam format for determining course grades because he perfected the skill of predicting the material that would appear on tests and therefore earned good grades on each exam (Peters, 2008).

Although the perspective surfaced on only one course evaluation, the literature suggests the sentiment is shared by a number of students. Many successful students (those who earn A's and B's) learn the rules of stimulus-response learning early in their academic careers. Due to the impact of GPA's on the tracking of primary and secondary school students and their role in higher education admissions decisions, the rules of stimulus-response learning become deeply ingrained and, due their contribution to the students' success, develop devotees to stimulus-response learning (Albanese, 2000; Albers, 2009; Ogilvie, 2009; Raidal and Volet, 2009). The sentiment can be summarized in the adage "dance with the one who brung you."

The ingrained preference for instructors differentiating between important and unimportant material (Adams, 2006; Clump & Doll, 2007; Lord, 2008) is also evident in student responses to an open-end question concerning the advantages and disadvantages of PowerPoint presentations. Less than one-third of the students in each of four sections of the author's courses indicated they did not review the PowerPoint presentations the author posted online prior to each class session. Of the remaining students, several in each...

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