Julia O'Reilly

“Well I got through it, so they should too.”

“They’re just not smart enough.”

“They just need to try harder.”

Introducing … the generational type of thinking that hinders progress for the sake of keeping the world of academia from changing.

Aka a professor’s bullshit excuses to weed out students from their classes and concentration with monotonous lecture-based courses.

Universities that remain stuck in their tried-and-true methods of traditional teaching based on grit fail to acknowledge that these ways are really not true at all. Rather, lecture-based classes are only conducive to one type of student — those that can process and regurgitate information in ways that appear almost robotic. And while it is a skill that all students dream of having, the reality is that universities must evolve and cater to every student with various teaching styles. Otherwise, these universities are merely allowing quality, capable young adults to slip through the cracks and away from their passions for a path that is “easier” and “right for them.” The National Science Foundation reported that, “On average across all the studies, a little more than one-third of students in traditional lecture classes failed — that is, they either withdrew or got Fs or Ds, which generally means they were ineligible to take more advanced courses.” The reason for this is that students learn less than half of what a lecturer says. Students learn more when presented with less information because it encourages more higher-order thinking as opposed to the memorization of overly fast lectures.

The solution to a flawed teaching method is not to fail kids because they don’t fit the traditional learning mold. It is to change the traditional learning mold to fit the unconventional student. This can be done through assessing students in different ways or supplementing traditional tests and exams with projects, art pieces and discussions. A proven, forward-looking way to tap into students’ potential is through active learning. According to Queen’s University, “Active learning is an approach to instruction that involves actively engaging students with the course material through discussions, problem-solving, case studies, role-plays and other methods.” It focuses on a spectrum of students’ strengths through diverse learning strategies of a collaborative nature, rather than abusing one sole teaching strategy. Queen’s University went on to compare the two teaching methods, explaining that “active learning approaches place a greater degree of responsibility on the learner than passive approaches such as lectures, but instructor guidance is still crucial in the active learning classroom.” Examples of active learning practices include think-pair-share — a technique in which students share their thoughts on a particular subject with a partner — and role-playing — during which students look at a topic from the perspective of a character or person. The jigsaw technique, peer teaching and game-based learning activate different methods of retaining and processing information. These teaching methods foster a culture that prioritizes the student as the architect of their own academic fate, granting them agency in their education rather than making them feel helpless, as is often the result of lecture-based courses.

Scott Freeman, a biologist from the University of Washington, Seattle, conducted 225 studies on undergraduate teaching methods for STEM courses. STEM courses are notoriously difficult, and this difficulty is responsible for many students questioning their place in the STEM field. Often struggling and failing in preliminary STEM prerequisite classes, STEM majors often find themselves as the victims of the major weed out process. Freeman’s meta-analysis “concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation.” This is because rather than passively receiving information, the active-learning process is contingent upon constant instructor and peer feedback, which forces students to acknowledge and fine-tune their shortcomings and holes in their understanding of topics rather than ignoring or overlooking them. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says, demonstrating the vast effect that even a portion of active learning can have in the classroom.

By tailoring the curriculum to only one learning style, professors are weeding out students who may very well be meant to be a STEM kid, an engineer or the future of corporate America. And not only are they doing these students the injustice of diverting them from careers in which they could be successful, but they also insinuate that these students are not capable or smart. Active learning initiatives should be the future of higher education because of their ability to cultivate students’ unique ways of thinking. It pushes students to formulate opinions, analyze and interpret information and talk with their peers in ways that are formative to their own person. The hard truth is that some students may choose the wrong path on the first try, and that’s okay. But what’s not okay is for the world of academia to write them off before they’ve even had a chance to try. It’s only after truly exploring a path that an 18-year-old ingenue can have the slightest clue of where to start looking for what they want to do for the rest of their life. And they deserve that chance.

Julia O’Reilly is a sophomore majoring in biology.