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What do students think of learning this way?

Positive feedback

The first five quotes come from a class who had me as their lecturer the year before I started teaching in the new research/discussion format. When polled, the entire class preferred the new teaching methodology over lecture (and when surveyed the prior year, they were very pleased with my lectures!). Five of them commented at length about the method. I consider their thoughts especially relevant because they had the opportunity to compare both methods, with the same instructor, in fine detail.

"Research and discussion has proven to be a far better learning experience. Lecture does not challenge a student, the information is just simply given. Research and discussion allows one to go more in depth as you're able to see multiple views and synthesize them into your own."
"You pick up more knowledge during the research than just what is on the worksheets."
". . . I feel that having to research before you discuss the subject not only teaches you how to teach yourself, but it also makes better use of class time since the students have researched before hand . . . Research followed by discussion is probably the best form of teaching I have come across since I have been a student."
"Researching the material before a lecture taught me a lot, like how to research on the web and look up things in books on my own, and teach myself like it will be in the real world. Also, researching before a lecture gave me background on the subject that was going to be talked about that day, which made for good discussions. With a lecture-based class, you go into the subject blind and not knowing a whole lot about the subject, most of the time just sitting back and listening to the instructor and not learning a whole lot."
"Personally, I tend to retain the material better if I have to do work to find out information rather than being told what to know. Some people may learn better with lecture so they may see it otherwise. [Also], it can be hard for me to sit still and listen to someone talk about something. I tend to space out and not pay attention as much as I could so I may miss important information. When I research I am able to go at my own pace and am able to take a break when needed, and I know I will not miss something that I may need to know later. Another valuable skill that I learned when researching for information on my own was [how] to teach myself. I learned how to use resources, like the Internet and the books that were available, in a much more efficient way."

I will add more student opinions as time goes on . . .

"I've been to college before, and I failed because I could not learn. Here, I can learn. If I had been taught this way before, I wouldn't have dropped out of college!"

Negative feedback

Pay very close attention to the following complaints. In each case, there is more being said than what may appear on the surface:

"Why am I having to pay (X) dollars per quarter just to teach myself?"
"I spend time teaching my classmates instead of learning new information."
"I might learn something wrong if I listen to what another student found in their research."
"Learning to learn independently is unnecessary."
"If I wanted to study, I would have gone to a real college!" (Yes, a student actually said this to me!)

I've noticed that complaints about this learning method tend to fall along two similar lines:

In my classroom, no student is left to their own devices in learning. They receive whatever assistance they need from me along the way. If a student does not know where to begin in research, I teach them how to use their college's library (or have a librarian show them). If a student cannot understand their textbook, I help them to read the book rather than act as a substitute for the book. If students draw incorrect conclusions from their research, I correct their errors not by simply telling them they're wrong, but by exposing their errors with Socratic irony (posing scenarios that don't make sense, given the misunderstanding). I do not, however, relieve them of their responsibilities in learning -- I always require that they think for themselves and that they do the necessary work.

One of the hardest lessons I've learned as a teacher is that the vast majority of students simply do not understand what it takes to learn. This barrier is not cognitive, but metacognitive: a failure to understand the process of learning. Conditioned by years of passive lecture, they believe that learning is a process in which a teacher inserts knowledge into their heads by telling them what they need to know. After years of compulsory public education, a depressingly large number of students still don't realize that learning is more a function of their own effort than the teacher's.

Few statements reveal this misunderstanding better than the following quote, which I've heard from many of my students when I used to lecture, and from many of my own classmates when I was a student:

"I understand the material when the teacher presents it to me, it's just that I can't do the (homework, tests, exercises, etc.) on my own."

Sure, anyone can passively follow a teacher's lead! But when students are left to think for themselves, they find they haven't learned what they thought they learned. Rather than recognize their own non-learning, and the passivity that fostered it, many students perceive this as an unfathomable paradox: they must have learned the material during lecture because they know they've seen it before, yet for some strange reason they cannot apply what they've supposedly learned.

The student's problem here is obvious: they haven't learned the material. If they had, they would be able to do the work on their own. The underlying problem -- not so obvious -- is that the teacher's efforts have been worse than ineffective: not only has the student not learned, but that same student left the lecture session(s) falsely confident they did. What makes so many people oblivious to this problem is educational tradition. Our popular view of human learning is constrained to such a degree by the long-standing roles of "teacher as presenter" and "student as recipient" that such problems usually go unnoticed, much less corrected.

To overcome this metacognitive barrier, you must directly challenge it, and this challenge will be a culture shock for many of your students. The notion that learning is primarily the responsibility of the student and not the teacher is heresy to some. If you decide to depart from traditional lecture in favor of a more active form of teaching such as this, be prepared for a certain level of resistance (and not just from students!). Even after decades of educational research arguing for student-centered instruction, treating students as anything but passive receptacles of information is still a radical idea.

Another barrier instructors face when trying to implement a teaching method such as this is younger students' unfamiliarity with independent living. Many of your younger students will honestly believe that learning ends on graduation day, and that anything they will need to know in life can and should be provided for them by someone else. The best way I've found to counter this unrealistic mindset is to have students ask professionally successful adults this open-ended question: "What are the most important skills I need to have in order to be successful?"

During the first year I taught with this method, I took my students on several tours of industries for which I was preparing them to work. These were tours specifically set up for my students -- led by technical professionals -- not general public tours. On more than one occasion, my students asked this same question of their tour guides, and the responses were always along the lines of "critical thinking," "lifelong learning," and "problem solving." At the time, I hadn't thought of daring my students to ask this question on our tours. They just wanted to find out on their own whether my goal of molding them into independent learners and critical thinkers was compatible with the real world. I strongly recommend you offer this challenge to any of your doubting students. If you stress to your students that it is important for them to become independent thinkers and learners, they might not believe you, because you are the one with the vested interest in a "peculiar" teaching method. But if an unbiased third party tells them the exact same thing -- especially if that third party might want to hire them in the future -- the judgment carries far more weight.

As a final comment, I must make it clear that not all student complaints regarding this or other unconventional teaching methods are the result of misconceptions on the students' part. Complaints may very well indicate the presence of a real problem in the class. If students complain about having to research on their own, ask yourself the following questions:

If students complain about having to teach their peers (which actually helps the teaching students learn, whether they realize it or not), first determine whether or not their peers are doing the necessary work. Some students will do as little studying as possible, opting instead to learn by burdening their harder-working classmates with unnecessary questions when they meet in class. Let your students know that no one is obligated to help a classmate who isn't doing their fair share of the work. Encourage your students to help their peers in the same way that you help them: by assisting them to find information on their own rather than simply giving it out, by asking logically leading questions, and other similar strategies. Identify these students as soon as possible, and address the problem by providing extra assistance to them during their research time. Give them the help they claim to need. If the problem is an unwillingness to invest effort rather than a legitimate learning impediment, it will soon become evident to all parties involved.

If students complain about the material being too difficult to learn, ask yourself the following questions:

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