Last week the Hechinger Report profiled an innovative charter school in San Diego called High Tech High (insert surfer jokes here) that follows an active, project based learning (PBL) model. The school doesn't use textbooks, and they don't base the curriculum on testing. The question they ask is whether this approach prepares students for college.
As a result, for [former HTH student Grace] Shefcik, college – with its large classes and lecture-based materials– came as a bit of a shock at first. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, she is one of more than 15,000 undergraduates, her assignments now usually consist of essays and exams. At High Tech High, Shefcik had just 127 students in her graduating class, allowing her to form close relationships with peers and teachers.
The premise of the article is that PBL prepares students for life but maybe not for college. Grace described the big difference between high school, with constant feedback and encouragement, to college, where you rarely get feedback. Other students describe their frustration in not knowing how to study for tests once they get to college.
After a recent screening of “Most Likely to Succeed” at the New Schools Summit in Burlingame, California, High Tech High CEO Larry Rosenstock told an audience, “We actually find that many of our students find themselves bored when they get to college.”
Teachers and administrators at High Tech High don’t tell many stories about their students reporting boredom, but they do hear about experiences like Shefcik’s. They say students find themselves overwhelmed by the different environment at college and have a difficult time making the transition to lecture-hall learning.
Students do tend to adjust, but this process can take longer than it does for traditionally-taught students.
But sometimes it takes High Tech High graduates a semester or a year at college or university before they feel like they’ve cracked the code.
“I had a harder time transitioning than other students,” said Mara Jacobs, a High Tech High graduate who just finished her second year at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and is the daughter of major donors Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs. “I couldn’t just do the work if I wasn’t bought into how I was being taught.”
My problem with the article is that it makes the assumption that all colleges outside of small private institutions base their entire curriculum on passive lectures and testing, not acknowledging many of the innovations and changes coming from these same colleges. We have profiled personalized learning approaches in our e-Literate TV series, including a PBL approach at Arizona State University for the Habitable Worlds course (see this episode for in-depth coverage).
Nevertheless, the general point remains that it is difficult for students to transition between active learning models and passive lecture and test models. The Hechinger Report calls out the example of K-12 students moving into college, but we talked to faculty and staff at UC Davis who saw the flip side of that coin - students used to passive learning at high school trying to adapt to an active learning science course in college.
Phil Hill: While the team at UC Davis is seeing some encouraging initial results from their course redesign, these changes are not easy. In our discussions, the faculty and staff provided insight into the primary barriers that they face when looking to build on their success and get other faculty members to redesign their courses.
Catherine Uvarov: Well, I have had some very interesting experiences with students. Last quarter, my class was mostly incoming freshman, and it’s like their very first quarter at UC Davis, so they have never taken a UC Davis class before. My class is pretty different from either classes they’ve taken in high school or other classes that they were still taking in their first quarter at Davis because these changes are not as widespread as they could be.
Some students push back at first, and they’re like, “Oh, my, gosh, I have to read the book. Oh, my, gosh, I have to open the textbook. Oh, my, gosh, I have to do homework every week. I have to do homework every day." They kind of freaked out a little bit in the beginning, but as the quarter progressed, they realized that they are capable of doing this type of learning style.
There's more info at both the Hechinger Report article and in the ASU and UC Davis case studies, but taken together they point out the challenges students face when transitioning between pedagogical models. These transitions can occur between high school and college, but more often they occur from course to course. Active learning and PBL are not just minor changes away from lecture and test - they require a new mindset and set of habits from students.