Tag Archives: ubyssey

Is “active learning” in the classroom helping you learn or wasting time?

Check out my latest article for the Ubyssey (UBC’s student-run newspaper). And in case you don’t feel like clicking the link, here’s a copy…


The other day I said to my class, “Please turn to the person next to you, and together come up with an example of a time when you or someone you know experienced classical conditioning,” a concept which I had just described.

Many students enthusiastically took advantage of this learning opportunity. But as I looked around the room, some students were checking email, some students were talking about other things, and others were simply staring blankly into space. I thought to myself: why aren’t more people taking advantage of this chance to study? The midterm is next week! This experience prompted me to think (again) about why I ask students to engage in particular activities on their own during class – and I thought you might be interested in knowing, too.

Why do I ask my students to do things like this? Because it works. The broad framework of what’s called “active learning” has taken higher education by storm over the last decade or two. Every time I ask students to discuss ideas and problems with people around them, participate in demonstrations, privately write a summary of what they just learned or engage in a team test, I am using some of the techniques of active learning.

There are dozens of examples of studies that have compared courses or topics that use active learning approaches to those that don’t. The specifics differ by course and discipline, but the message is clear: active learning results in improved student learning, relative to traditional lecture format. Granted, not just any activity will do; those that are tied to specific, measurable learning objectives are best. My teaching practice is far from perfect in this regard, but I strive for such synergy daily among my in-class activities and learning objectives (and assessments too, but that’s another story).

So why is it that some students choose to take advantage of active learning techniques in the classroom, and others sit idly? Maybe the idle students are idle when I’m lecturing too, but I just don’t notice as much. Perhaps some students are unmotivated by the task or are failing to take care of their physical health and therefore zone out. Okay. But I think another part is not realizing just how valuable those active learning opportunities can be.

Based on research from cognitive psychology, I suspect that active learning works because working with the material promotes recalling it, which strengthens memories. It can also help people attach new ideas to existing memories, so the new ideas stand a better chance of being recalled and perhaps even applied in new situations. By taking five minutes to think up an example from your own life of a concept — like classical conditioning, if you’re in my intro to psych class — you will remember it better than if you didn’t. Even if you’re tired or uninterested or thinking about your weekend plans or otherwise don’t feel like participating in active learning, remember that. Learning is challenging. It takes work on the part of the person trying to learn.

On the first day of each of my courses, I warn my students: I’m here to create conditions in which you might learn, but I’m not going to guarantee anything. You must make the choice to learn. And that’s what it comes down to. It’s your choice to waste your time or to help yourself learn.

What do profs do all day?

Wow, I’ve been writing a lot lately… just not here! Check out my latest article for the Ubyssey (UBC’s student-run newspaper). And in case you don’t feel like clicking the link, here’s a copy…


Most people probably think they could tell you what a university professor or instructor does. There’s probably little bit of reading, some research and some teaching. But how much do people actually know about how professors spend their days?

I’m a tenure-track faculty member here at UBC in the teaching stream. This means that next year, after four years of full-time teaching, my performance will be evaluated by colleagues, and if I am deemed “excellent” enough, I will be hired permanently by UBC. My title will change to senior instructor, but (I think!) that’s the only major change.

Indeed, the more common tenure-track stream for faculty involves being evaluated primarily on research. That means teaching vies for attention with research, the activity that ultimately determines whether a faculty member advances. I enjoyed doing research, but it was immediately clear to me that I love teaching students. I am passionate about the creative and deeply human process of helping someone think differently, so this teaching track is a perfect fit for me. That’s a glimpse into the big-picture career level of professorship. What does the daily life of a prof actually involve?

I teach about 500 students across three courses this term. That means I am physically in the classroom for nine hours each week. And I’m in the teaching stream: I teach double the amount of time as my closest research colleagues.

It’s easy to assume we do very little throughout a typical day, or that we just wait around for students to email us. When I was in undergrad, I used to think that was true. As it turns out, I work for about 60 hours each week (and some years that number has been as high as 75 or 80). Most of my time is spent preparing lessons, although the percentage of time I spend on course preparation has decreased over the past couple of years.

The first time I teach a course, I spend about 20 to 30 hours a week on that course alone. This preparation includes choosing and reading the textbook, deciding what concepts are most important or challenging or interesting, designing lessons that help students learn those concepts, and designing learning assessments like exams and assignments. All of this preparation requires an understanding of the discipline and how people learn, both of which inform my choices while creating learning experiences and assessments for my students. Each time I revisit a course, I strive to improve my expertise in how to teach it effectively. Sometimes this means overhauling entire lessons or assignments, but much of the time this means deepening my knowledge by reading journal articles and making more subtle changes to lessons based on last year’s notes and new developments in the field. After about four or five rounds of a course, I’m down to spending about eight hours a week on it, outside of class.

I also coordinate learning events, like speaker series. I sit on a number of committees to help make the university function well. And I also write. Writing is a major part of most academic posts. Last year I co-wrote a textbook on Research Methods. More recently, I have been writing an application to the federal agency that funds humanities research (called the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to convince them to fund my upcoming conference on training graduate students to teach.

After that is a new syllabus for next term, and a research article for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. One of the challenges involved in academic work is constantly switching from major broad projects to day-to-day details of teaching courses. But it’s a fun challenge, and one that the general public needs to understand.