by Amy Taylor
The limited amount of time I have with my students creates a constant tension with the voluminous amount of material I want to teach them. So much has been made lately of active learning and flipping the classroom that I feel a little guilty when I lecture in class. The perception that students’ attention spans are next-to-nothing and the idea that hands-on learning is the only meaningfully way to engage them has taken a toll on my confidence. I find that not only am I no longer as excited about teaching as I once was, I am also no longer as sure of what and how I should be teaching.
Like many law librarians, I’ve had no formal teacher training, and I’m aware that I need to improve my skill set. So when I ran across a glowing reference to a book titled Multimedia Learning, I purchased a copy (1st edition; a 2d edition is also available). The book’s author, Richard Mayer, is a distinguished psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies the science of learning. He defines multimedia for the purposes of this book as “the presentation of material using both words and pictures.” (p. 1, 1st ed.)
Early on in his book, Mayer presents two views of learning: (1) as information acquisition and (2) as knowledge construction. (Note: In the 2d edition, he presents a third view as well.) He then applies the use of multimedia to both. Right away, I feel smug because, of course, knowledge construction is my view of learning. Then I read the section on information acquisition, and, uh-oh, I realize that this is how I actually view learning. I see my primary role as transmitting information to the students (the transmission view). I see them as lacking what I have, as a blank slate (the empty vessel view). And I view the skill of legal research as a commodity to be moved from me to them (the commodity view). (p. 12, 1st ed.)
So am I right back where I started, with the idea that hands-on and flipped learning is the one true path? Surprisingly, no. Active learning is learning that occurs when the student is cognitively active, whether or not the student is behaviorally active. If a student is engaged with the material and trying to make sense of it, even via a lecture or presentation, this is considered active learning. So I can’t just make all of my classes hands-on (voila!) and expect that meaningful learning will automatically occur. I also can’t tell just by looking at students whether meaningful learning is occurring, i.e., I can’t equate behavioral activity with cognitive activity. (Though no mention has been made of it yet, I suspect that this is why assessment is so important.)
And what role does being cognitively active play in the knowledge construction view of learning? When students are cognitively active, they are creating knowledge for themselves and making sense of the material as it is presented. (p. 13) And what role does the teacher play? It’s our job to assist, to be a guide for how to process and make sense of what we present. And how do we best do this? There are 10 chapters of Multimedia Learning remaining, and I will blog more about them in subsequent posts. Stay tuned. . .