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Active Learning vs. Lecturing in the College Classroom

by Paul T. Corrigan

One often hears of active learning as a new approach. In contrast, lecturing is the traditional method. Those who support active learning consider it an innovation. Those who do not consider it “another in a long line of educational fads,” as Michael Prince notes. The sequence and chronology remain undisputed either way. Lecturing came first. It has always been with us. Active learning came later. It has been on the scene for a relatively short time.

Even one as well informed as Wilbert McKeachie calls lecturing “probably the oldest teaching method.” Similarly, while Marilyn Page declares active learning “not a new concept,” she goes on to date it only as far back as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Dewey. Time and again in her dissertation on the history of active learning, she explicitly describes it in terms of a “rejection of traditional teaching methods.”

I think these common ways of talking about active learning and lecturing constitute a historical and rhetorical misstep. That is, saying that lecturing precedes active learning is not accurate and does not frame the discussion productively.

If we are talking about the two as philosophies and movements,

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3 Comments for “Active Learning vs. Lecturing in the College Classroom”

  1. I think you have articulated a very important corrective regarding the history of active learning vis-a-vis lecturing. I especially appreciate the way you differentiated between the philosophy and practice of these teaching methods. I agree with the comment above by Daniel R. that active learning is certainly not a fad, as you have helpfully proven in this post.

  2. Thank you! I really appreciate the perspective here. Active learning is certainly not a fad. As mentioned, we may have a term for it now but it has always been one of the best ways to accomplish true long lasting learning. Active leaning makes concepts real to us.

  3. Thank you for sharing! Education has a deep rooted history and we need to keep that in mind while teaching because it affects our teaching and learning styles.

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