Teaching Experts: Active versus Passive

Ruth Clark in Evidence-Based Training Methods provides an interesting pointer to a Haidet et al (2004) study where medical residents learned just as well in a lecture format as they did in a more interactive discussion-based format. The suggestion is that experts are better able to learn from passive presentations of information than novices because of their rich schema in the topic area and their highly developed learning skills.

First off, kudos to Clark for presenting disconfirming evidence for her main position, which is that, all else being equal, active learning is superior to passive learning.

To be sure, one study is only a data point, and there could easily be mitigating factors. Was the content so easy for the learners that there was a ceiling effect of learning? Is it possible that a gifted lecturer was put up against poorly designed discussion activities? We don’t know unless we look back against the original research.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t lay my hands on the original source, so I wasn’t readily able to dive into the details, though there are nice summaries out there. I was, however, able to get my hands on a 2007 article that Haidet contributed to analyzing the current state of team-based learning (TBL) in medical schools. The 2007 article is very supportive of TBL and cites a number of articles upholding its virtues.

One of the articles cited in favor of TBL is the 2004 Haidet article. The 2004 article found that TBL led to higher apparent engagement among learners, but at the cost of lower learner satisfaction. The lack of significant difference in learning and the negative finding of lower satisfaction are not mentioned in the 2007 article. The 2004 article does point to a 50% decrease in time that the instructor was delivering content, but it is not clear from the abstract whether this is an overall reduction in class time or simply a reduction in lecture during the same amount of class time (presumably the latter).

That the 2007 article cites the positive findings of the 2004 article but not the neutral nor negative findings may indicate that Haidet and his colleagues were later unable to replicate the earlier results, or that they found mitigating factors, or that the subsequent evidence in favor of TBL was too overwhelming. In any case, I’ll keep digging as this notion of differences between teaching experts versus novices is an important one.

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