Ratio: Active vs. Passive Learning

When you have a lot of content to teach and not much time, it’s easy to use up all of the class time lecturing. But it’s also important not to lose sight of one of teachers’ biggest goals: having students do most of the cognitive work in the classroom. That means they should be doing as much of the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, and the talking as possible. You’ll know you’re doing this when you find that you are rarely doing anything in the class without the help of your students. It’s not always easy to, but here are some easy ways to start, brought to you by Doug Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion

  • Unbundle: Break questions into small bits so that you can share the workload out to more students and get them to react to each other. Instead of asking a question like, “Why do user research?” you can ask a string of questions to many students. For example: “Sara, what is user research?” > “Great. John, what is one reason we conduct user research?” > “Matt, what’s another reason?” > “Julia, what’s one way to conduct user research?” and so on until you have a complete answer from a number of students. 
  • Half-Statements. Instead of sharing complete statements with students, get the ball rolling with the first half of the idea and then ask students to finish your thought. For example: “So the main goal in conducting user research is… what, Luis? / “…someone from …the front table, can you tell us?” / “…tell the person sitting next to you.” 
  • What’s Next? This works particularly well in technical classes with multi-step problems. A quick way to double the number of problems students are solving is to ask them not only to solve a step, but to also ask them to define the next step. Such as: “What’s our solution here?… That’s right and someone new tell us what the next step is… You got it, someone new solve that step for us…” This way, students have done all the work and you have simply chained their thinking together. 
  • Feign Ignorance. Make students take the lead by pretending you’re helpless without them — if they were not there to help you, you wouldn’t know how to answer the question or solve the problem. Here’s an example: “So I can just make up a user for my product without talking to anyone outside my office? My group of friends is a good sample to conduct user research on?”  
  • Rephrase or Add On. There’s a reason we iterate on ideas — they get more precise, specific, and rich with each iteration. As if that’s not enough, it also requires more a more complex, rigorous type of thinking! The same is true for answers in the classroom. You can ask students to rephrase and improve an answer she or a classmate just gave by saying something like: “You’re right, but you’ve only scratched the surface. What can you add?” / “That’s correct. Who can help him out with the correct terminology to make his answer better?” / “Does anyone think that can be put more simply?” / “What kind of examples would you attribute to this idea?” / “Great. Someone apply that thinking to a different circumstance.” 
  • Whys and Hows. To instantly push your students for more, ask them why or how. It forces them explain the thinking that answered (or did not answer) the question at hand and do more of the cognitive work at hand. 
  • Supporting Evidence. Supporting an opinion requires a lot more cognitive work than simply holding one does. You can push your ratio further by asking students to show support for their answers. Once you’ve done this a couple of times, open it up to other students to prove or disprove one another by providing the appropriate evidence.
  • Play Volleyball. Increasing ratio can often result in a ping-pong match between the instructor and students where the conversation goes: instructor-student-instructor-student-instructor-student. Instead, aim to make it volleyball where many students get their hands on the concept before it crosses over the net to the instructor again. Keep in mind that in volleyball, a limited number of touches are allowed on each side at a time. Likewise, it’s a good idea to hop into the conversation after a certain number of student “touches” so that you can direct the flow and goals of the conversation.  

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