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When we think of the layout of a classroom or lecture hall, we will most likely conjure the same image. A large room with desks facing the front of the classroom where a shiny whiteboard stands as the backdrop for the leading role—the teacher. The very spaces students occupy evoke the idea that the teacher runs the show; the teacher will impart information, ideas, wisdom, instruction. In spite of this notion of teaching that has pervaded our education system since the dawn of time, there is evidence to prove that it may not be the most effective. Countless studies suggest that students learn more when given larger roles in their classrooms. In fact, learning outcomes are better when students and teachers switch roles altogether. 

Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking How College Students Learn recounts Harvard physics professor Eric Mauzer’s discovery: students learn best when they teach one another. Mauzer was struggling to get his students past rote memorization to a deeper understanding of the concepts he taught. To help students fully understand a concept, he spent a full day in class explaining in great detail how to approach and solve a specific problem. After he finished—what he thought was— a comprehensive lesson about how to tackle the problem, he was met with blank stares. The students still didn’t understand. 

Out of sheer desperation, he asked the students who understood the topic to explain it to the students who didn’t. “The entire classroom erupted in chaos. They were dying to explain it to one another and to talk about it,” Mauzer said. After a matter of minutes, students seemed to understand the concept better than after his thoughtful lecture. He postulated that because the students recently learned how to solve the problem, it was easier for them to identify and disabuse conceptual difficulties. As an expert in his field, the concepts no longer felt foreign or confusing, which made it harder to understand where students may stumble.  

After seeing the positive effects it had on his class, Mauzer adopted this method to his classroom. He uses this mode of teaching to help students graduate to a greater level of understanding and ability. According to the article, “What Mazur has found over nearly 20 years of using peer instruction is that many more students choose the right answer after they have talked with their peers.”

Some call this notion the protege effect. It is defined as a psychological phenomenon in which teaching or pretending to teach helps students learn information. When students are expected to teach, they are more likely to think deeply about their learning process, which increases their metacognitive processing. It also can also lead to

“increased use of effective learning strategies, such as organizing the material and seeking out key pieces of information.”

When students feel the pressure of walking in front of a classroom instead of passively learning from a teacher, they accept more responsibility and therefore learn material fully and intentionally. 

However, teaching fellow students isn’t the only way to help students learn in a more active manner. In fact, there are many studies that conclude that students learn more by being active members of their classroom. The University of Chicago also performed a study in which they studied the effects of using the hands-on approach to teaching. Their study focused on students who were able to physically experience scientific concepts. In it, students were split into two groups. One group who observed concepts like torque and angular momentum, while another group actually used a bike wheel to fully understand these largely abstract concepts. Not surprisingly, the students who were able to touch and feel the impact of these concepts performed better than those who did not. The information helped them understand their conceptual curiosities into something more tangible. 

Now one may assume that all of the students in these studies are simply tactical learners as opposed to visual or auditory learners. The notion of differential ‘learning styles’ was systematically studied and later categorized in 1987 by Neil Flemming. His studies determined that there are four different types of learners Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinesthetic. Thus, VARK, a guide to learning preferences was born. However, an article published by The Atlantic highlights a few studies that disprove the theory that students learn in one manner or another. In the studies, there was often little to no correlation between a student’s learning styles and how they liked to study.

However, the writer did acknowledge that not every student is equally good at every skill. “People have different abilities, not styles.” Simply put, students can learn in many ways–and sometimes, there are lessons that must be learned in one style. For example, visualizing how to ride a bike will not help you when you put your feet in the pedals. 

Kinesthetic Learning: Moving Toward a New Model for Education hypothesizes that kinesthetic learning may be the best way to help students learn. Writer, Kirin Sinha states, “I remember the moves to dances I performed when I hear the music. Yet I can no longer recite the capitals of all the states or the elements in the periodic table — all information that I had memorized. No matter how much we memorize, recite, and study, our muscle memory seems to trump our brains alone.” 

While there may never be a perfect or truly personalized solution. Hands-on learning seems to work. When students are able to engage actively instead of passively, the information sticks. It makes sense and students can connect their learning to something tangible. So it may be time to change the layout of our schools, let teachers work behind the scenes, and let students take center stage. 

Taking Center Stage: Learning by Doing

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