Passive learning is when students are expected to receive information handed down by means of lectures and slides. It’s a time-tested form of course design that has repeatedly been shown to result in poor retention of the material. Certainly a well-crafted and well-delivered lecture can be a component of a great course. But relying too much on students to function as passive receptacles for information just doesn’t work that well.
Neither does relying on faculty members to be passive listeners. Yet far too many campus meetings follow the PowerPoint, information-dump model, in which an administrator (or even a fellow faculty member) stands at a podium and talks at the faculty, and then opens the floor to questions. What would happen if we thought of these internal meetings as a teaching moment, and applied the best practices of active learning?
I approached some faculty-development experts and asked for their thoughts on active learning and faculty meetings. Here’s what they said.
Lee Skallerup Bessette, a well-known writer on higher education and a faculty instructional consultant at the University of Kentucky, recognized the problem. “We can't seem to quit the transactional meeting in academia,” she said in an email. “And trust me, no one is ‘taking notes’ on their laptops during meetings.”
One solution she recommended: gamestorming, an approach in which someone leading a meeting uses collaborative games to move the group toward some goal. “One of the people in my group has introduced gamestorming activities to our meetings in order to make them more productive, more active,” Bessette said. “We also try to limit the ‘informational’ meetings by giving the information ahead of time. If it can be communicated some other way, than we should do that. Think of it as a ‘flipped’ meeting.” She also thinks every administrator should read the book, Collaborative Learning Techniques, and apply its methods to meetings.
I also spoke with the director of a center for teaching and learning at a large private university who wanted to remain anonymous in order to speak bluntly about the problem (this director does not have tenure). In an email, the director wrote, “One easy way: Instead of speaking at us about problems at our universities or departments, lay out the issues at stake and let faculty work in groups to arrive at potential solutions. More active, more transparent, and probably more productive, too.”
Jodi Cressman, director of the Borra Center for Teaching and Learning at Dominican University, where I teach, invoked another powerful word in the education business: outcomes.
“One key to successful active learning is to have concrete outcomes,” Cressman wrote to me. “Bringing active learning over from the classroom to a college meeting would mean that the agenda would list actions/outcomes instead of topics (e.g., advise the administration on ..., decide on ...; become familiar with ... ; come up with ideas for …, assess the ...).” Faculty, she said, may not know what they should be doing with the information imparted to them at staff meetings, just as students might not know what they should be doing with the information on a syllabus or in a lecture.
With a list of outcomes, Cressman said, administrators could then spend meeting time on activities linked to those outcomes: “If the outcome is to advise the administration on an issue, for example, there could be team discussions; if the administration is seeking ideas, then there could be brainstorming activities.”
So how might these principles work, pragmatically, at departmental or college meetings?
For that, I turned to Pamela Barnett. Before she became dean of arts and sciences at Trinity Washington University, she spent 10 years in faculty development and is a scholar in the field. As an administrator, she’s now trying to practice what she used to preach. Her goal is to find “the genius” that only appears through collective effort.
“During my first all-college faculty meeting,” she said in an email, “I had two goals: I wanted to impart my vision for the college, but I also wanted to learn something about my new environment. I broke faculty into small groups and had them decide what I most needed to know about what works (and doesn't) in our Gen Ed curriculum. Instead of hearing only from the most voluble, I got the ideas that survived the filter of the group discussion. One new colleague said it was ‘unconventional,’ but ‘refreshing.’ If I want to impart information, I can send an email. When we meet, it will be to do those things that can be accomplished only when we are all together.”
Barnett offered a further example of how we as administrators and professors might rethink the forms of our meetings. In January she brought together a group of faculty to revise the first-year curriculum. Based on a teaching model developed by Stephen Brookfield, the group started with committee members sharing the proposals they had prepared for up to five minutes. The committee members spoke in turn with no discussion or questions allowed.
“It took discipline,” Barnett said. “Some people hated it! But at the end everyone realized that the strategy saved us from the ‘groupthink’ that can emerge when the first, most confident person sets the tone or terms, and then discussions revolve around that -- and not the diversity of ideas generated.”
From all of my interviews I was able to extract some principles:
- Share data and information ahead of time.
- Let the faculty know what the hoped-for result of a meeting is.
- Develop innovative ways to involve the faculty in generating ideas rather than passively receiving content.
Some caveats: It’s going to be easier to do this kind of thing in small meetings, much as it’s easier to eschew the lecture in a course with 20 students than one with 200. In fact, most small-sized meetings I attend are already based on collaborative activities, though I know I am going to think harder about outcomes for the ones I chair. It’s much more difficult when we gather the whole faculty in an auditorium for our big academic councils.
To its credit, my administration is trying on the latter front. As of this academic year, our large-group meetings are designed around the assumption that faculty members have done their reading ahead of time. That’s a big leap of faith.
As teachers, we know that assuming our students have done the reading is dangerous, and that’s part of why we lecture. It’s a way of making sure that, no matter what students are doing on their own time, they hear the essential facts in class. On the other hand, it also teaches students that preparing for class is optional, as they are just going to hear the same facts repeated in person.
That dynamic is also true for campus meetings. If I know someone is going to read a PowerPoint to me, I confess that, at best, I skim the materials before the meeting. Since we adopted the new model on my campus, I’ve been doing my homework and coming to meetings better prepared.
A “flipped meeting” might make the moments when administrators and professors come together feel more collaborative. We should work together to craft the best learning environment that we can imagine. It won’t make the problems of higher education vanish, but it might help leverage more of the bright minds in all our institutions toward solving those problems.