Enhancing academic achievement by identifying and minimizing the impediments to active learning.
The education and teaching literatures have extensively discussed active learning strategies and the benefits of implementing them, but have accorded minimal attention to the barriers to implementation. More specifically, active learning strategies such as application, discussion, group work, journaling, service learning, simulations, and students responding to questions or posing questions arising from the readings (Dietz-Uhler & Lanter, 2009; Hattery, 2003, Novak, 2002; Pollack & Motoike, 2006; Sands & Shelton, 2010; Schaefer & Zygmont, 2003) are credited with producing greater rates of deep learning and understanding than passive learning (Candela, Dalley, & Benzel-Lindley 2006; Novak, 2002). However, maximizing the rates of deep learning and understanding is dependent on counteracting student and faculty preferences for the polar opposite of active learning which is passive or stimulus-response learning. In the absence of overcoming these preferences, the inclusion of active learning strategies in MPA courses entails placing a thin veneer of active learning over the foundation of passive or stimulus-response learning. Under these conditions, faculty continue to minimize course preparation time while students are able to perpetuate the learned behaviors of limiting their responses to the procedures, knowledge, and skills addressed by the course while ignoring elements from other courses, knowledge, and skills that may be more appropriate or generate a deeper understanding of the topic. Due to operating within these parameters, the linkages developed between material discussed in the course and the students' preexisting knowledge structure are artificially limited along with the probability of recalling and utilizing the information at a later date. Nor is it possible to identify the components of the students' responses that are conditioned reactions to the stimuli generated by the assessment mechanism or indicators of deep learning and understanding (Billing, 2007; Connor-Greene, 2000; Doyle, 1988; Hay, 20007; Hay & Kinchin, 2008; Lithner, 2008; Taylor & White 2006; Watters & Watters, 2007).
There also are few instances in which the literature has examined the curricular implications of implementation even though it is a significant issue in the introduction of active learning strategies. The central challenge in executing active learning strategies is that they consume more time than stimulus-response/passive learning. Unless there is sufficient slack in the curriculum, the integration of active learning strategies into the MPA curriculum therefore necessitates a reduction in the volume of knowledge and skills addressed by the curriculum or an increase in the number of required credit hours.
Given the role of stimulus-response learning in inhibiting the realization of active learning's benefits, the next section provides a brief synopsis of stimulus-response learning and a description of the student and faculty preferences for this approach to education. The section also delineates some of the strategies for counteracting the preferences and thereby maximizing the extent to which active learning strategies foster deep learning and understanding. Due to active learning strategies requiring a greater amount of time to address topics, the subsequent section addresses strategies for prioritizing curriculum components, reducing the breadth of coverage, and integrating the remaining course materials. The final section summarizes the findings and examines the implications for MPA programs.
IDENTIFYING AND COUNTERACTING BARRIERS TO ACTIVE LEARNING
As implied by the nomenclature, stimulus-response learning entails students generating the appropriate responses to instructor-furnished stimuli. The process begins with lectures and the accompanying PowerPoint presentations that define the portions of assigned readings the instructor deems to be important and reinforces the definitions, methods, and interpretations conveyed by the assigned readings. Additional reinforcement is provided by problem sets, quizzes, objectives, and questions raised by the faculty member and the readings. By the time students sit for their exams, they have been conditioned to base their responses on the materials addressed by lectures and subsequent exercises, to disregard insights and relevant information gleaned from other courses and personal experience, to apply the same strategies for answering questions that were used for the problem sets and similar exercises, and to provide responses that replicate the ones generated by each of the previous steps. Due to students being conditioned to respond to key words and cues embedded in each step of the learning process, those who review the answers to exam questions cannot determine the extent to which the responses are unconscious reactions to stimuli or indicative of learning and understanding (Billing, 2007; Connor-Greene, 2000; Doyle, 1988; Lithner, 2008; Ogilvie, 2009; Taylor & White 2006; Watters & Watters, 2007).
Benefits of Stimulus-Response Learning Accruing to Students
Even though stimulus-response learning is not a vehicle for promoting deep learning and understanding or traits such as creativity and critical thinking, the benefits of stimulus-response learning produce a preference for the approach and a barrier to fully achieving the promise of active learning. One of the primary benefits accruing to students is the faculty assuming responsibility for the learning process and thereby enabling students to be passive recipients of the knowledge and skills their instructors pour into their heads (Albers, 2009). The perspective is reflected in the students' contention that the instructor did not explain the material in ways students could understand and course evaluation questions asking whether difficult material was explained to the students' satisfaction. In both instances, the absence of statements regarding the students' efforts to read and understand the material suggests insufficient comprehension and understanding is primarily the faculty's fault; they should have been a better teacher. Learning therefore is implicitly defined as a function of the instructor's abilities rather than a responsibility shared by both teacher and students.
The perception of faculty and student responsibilities is also reflected in the assumption that the instructor will tell students what they need to know (Brost & Bradley, 2006; Clump & Doll, 2007; Lord, 2008; Marchant, 2002). Under these conditions, students can choose to (1) forego, with impunity, reading the assigned materials, (2) read, but not invest sufficient time and energy in comprehending the materials, or (3) read and comprehend the materials. The frequency of students choosing the first option is suggested by the prevalence of aliteracy, i.e., the ability to read but the decision not to do so. Burchfield and Sappington (2000) concluded that a majority of undergraduates and approximately one-third of graduate students do not read the assigned materials. The preference for not reading or investing minimal effort in comprehension (Sappington, Kinsey & Munsayac, 2002) is also suggested by student responses to the author's open-end course evaluation questions. When asked to define the advantages and disadvantages of submitting concept maps before each set of assigned materials is discussed in class, approximately one-quarter of the students in a section of public budgeting and finance indicated the assignment forces them define the major concepts discussed in the readings and to map the relationships among the concepts. The use of the word "forced" suggests developing a deeper understanding of the material prior to class sessions was not a customary activity.
A second "benefit" accruing to students is minimizing the volume of material they are expected to study, know, and apply (Boesen, Lithner & Palm, 2010; Brost & Bradley, 2006, Clump & Doll, 2007; Ogilvie, 2009). Since the lecture and PowerPoint slides define components of the readings the instructor thinks are important (Adams, 2006), the students can, with minimal risk, focus on these elements and ignore the remainder of the readings. The power of the unwritten agreement is evidenced by a student's response to one of the author's open-end course evaluation questions. At the conclusion of the semester in which the author experimented with basing the course grade entirely on class participation, the student indicated he preferred the traditional exam format for determining course grades because he perfected the skill of predicting the material that would appear on tests and therefore earned good grades on each exam (Peters, 2008).
Although the perspective surfaced on only one course evaluation, the literature suggests the sentiment is shared by a number of students. Many successful students (those who earn A's and B's) learn the rules of stimulus-response learning early in their academic careers. Due to the impact of GPA's on the tracking of primary and secondary school students and their role in higher education admissions decisions, the rules of stimulus-response learning become deeply ingrained and, due their contribution to the students' success, develop devotees to stimulus-response learning (Albanese, 2000; Albers, 2009; Ogilvie, 2009; Raidal and Volet, 2009). The sentiment can be summarized in the adage "dance with the one who brung you."
The ingrained preference for instructors differentiating between important and unimportant material (Adams, 2006; Clump & Doll, 2007; Lord, 2008) is also evident in student responses to an open-end question concerning the advantages and disadvantages of PowerPoint presentations. Less than one-third of the students in each of four sections of the author's courses indicated they did not review the PowerPoint presentations the author posted online prior to each class session. Of the remaining students, several in each section stated the PowerPoint presentations defined the information the author thought was important. A few also indicated the presentations provided a framework for organizing their thoughts about the material and assisted in developing their concept maps. Although the author would like to believe that graduate students are more self-directed than instructor-dependent, the evidence suggests the distribution of PowerPoint slides prior to class sessions reinforces many of the students' preference for stimulus-response learning.
Stimulus-response learning is also suggested by student comments regarding exams and classes. Although the statement "it's not fair to include material on the exam that was not discussed in class" is more pervasive among undergraduate than graduate students, it nevertheless is symptomatic of the presumption that the instructor and PowerPoint presentations will provide signals defining material that is important or unimportant (Adams, 2006; Lord, 2008). A student also observed that one of the MPA courses required a considerable amount of reading, but the challenge of preparing for exams was significantly reduced by the fact that there was only one correct answer; the one discussed in class. The student therefore was able to focus on class discussions rather than develop a deep understanding of the material addressed by the readings.
A common theme of each of the preceding benefits is efficiency. The definition of topics that are important and unimportant enables students (1) to forego reading the assigned materials or to read, but not invest sufficient time to comprehend the materials and (2) minimize study time by focusing on topics the instructor defined as important and ignoring or briefly examining the remaining information. Additional efficiencies can be achieved whenever an instructor signals there is only one correct answer. Students can focus on replicating information discussed in class and thereby minimize the amount of time and energy invested in thought and analysis. However, each of the efficiencies is achieved at the expense of achieving deep learning and understanding.
Strategies for Counteracting the Benefits Accruing to Students
Efficiencies and "benefits" resulting from the students' dependence on instructors can be undermined by the introduction of active learning mechanisms at each phase of the learning process. Prior to discussing the assigned materials in class, the incentive to read the materials can be enhanced by the use of quizzes (Gier & Kreiner, 2009; Narloch, Garbin & Turnage, 2006), concept maps, and issue papers. Since faculty determine the content of quizzes and students define the composition of concept maps and issue papers, the latter two options shift the greatest responsibility for learning from faculty to students. In the case of concept maps, students are responsible for selecting the concepts discussed in the readings, diagramming the relationships among them, and defining the links between each pair of concepts (Hay, 2007; Hay, Kinchin & Lygo-Baker, 2008). Although several respondents to the author's open-end course evaluation questions contended concept maps can be completed without understanding the materials, the outcome is not feasible for issue papers. In this instance, students use concepts they have selected from the readings to analyze situations they have encountered at work or read in the media. Due to these attributes, pre-discussion quizzes, concept maps, and issue papers provide incentives for students to assume greater responsibility for reading and interpreting the assigned materials and thereby promote active learning by reducing the rewards of stimulus-response / passive learning.
When the assigned materials are discussed in class, the preceding incentives can be enhanced by minimalist PowerPoint presentations. Several critiques of PowerPoint suggest detailed slides focus discussions on the bullet points and unconsciously absolve students of the responsibility for developing additional items or perspectives (Adams, 2006; Gabriel, 2008; Klemm, 2007). To combat this tendency, and inject greater flexibility into class discussions, the author has gradually reduced the amount of information on the slides. On occasion, the author has developed six slides for a three-hour class and most of the slides contained only one sentence or phrase.
The breadth of class discussion can also be expanded by the instructor refraining from adding items that were in the readings but were not raised by the students. By following this strategy, responsibility for defining items is gradually shifted from the instructor to the students.
The benefits of parsimonious PowerPoint slides and participation by the instructor were measured during a semester in which a Smart board was in the author's classroom. Each time a student participated in the discussion, their contribution was summarized in a phrase that was written and stored on Smart Board. A subsequent review of the material revealed that five to ten percent of the items were not addressed by any of the readings but were the product of personal experiences at the students' place of employment and, less frequently, the material covered in other classes.
Benefits of Stimulus-Response Learning Accruing to Faculty
Stimulus-response learning is also a function of benefits accruing to faculty. Whenever instructors assume the role of conveyers of knowledge along with the responsibility for the learning of students, they can recycle information with minimal revisions. Consequently, the first time a course is taught, a significant investment of time is required to develop the reading list, PowerPoint slides, and notes for each class session. With the exception of periodically updating the reading list and the related revision of the PowerPoint slides and notes, stimulus-response learning enables instructors to invest minimal time in course preparation by the third or fourth iteration of the course.
A faculty member's research time also can be protected by foregoing implementation of the previously discussed incentives for students to assume a more active role in their education. Although quizzes, interactive sessions, concept mapping and issue papers provide incentives for students to read and analyze the materials (Benedict & Anderton, 2004; Choudhury, Gouldsborough & Gabriel, 2010; Padilla-Walker, 2006), e-learning cannot be utilized to grade the latter two options and therefore require a weekly commitment of faculty time to review, grade, and provide feedback to students.
Similarly, developing detailed PowerPoint slides serves to minimize preparation time. By providing a script for each class session (Gabriel, 2008; Klemm, 2007), the prompts and transitions among topics enable instructors to minimize the amount of time dedicated to reviewing the materials and preparing for each class session. Detailed slides also constrain the range of discussions and therefore provide fewer opportunities for tangents (Adams, 2006; Gabriel, 2008; Klemm, 2007). For example, when one of the author's class sessions focused on state constitutional provisions affecting budgeting and financial management, the use broad headings provided sufficient flexibility for students to raise questions such as the use of eminent domain for economic development and the term of office for county drain commissioners.
However, the opportunity to examine a broader range of topics is not appreciated by a subset of students. Each semester, student responses to the author's open-ended course evaluation questions reveal a preference for focusing exclusively on the information addressed by the readings. Any discussion or question outside of this parameter is defined as an unnecessary tangent. Several students also perceive the flexibility to introduce personal work experiences as a chance for others to enhance their class participation grades by "showing off" their expertise instead of viewing the flexibility as an opportunity to relate theory to practice. The comments demonstrate the deeply ingrained preference of some students to limit the discussion to the "important" information. These feelings also surface on course evaluations as negative comments concerning the instructor's classroom management capabilities.
Whenever the learning strategies encourage greater participation and flexibility, the instructor is at greater risk of not knowing the answer to some of the students' queries. There have been a few instances each semester when the questions have been beyond the author's scope of knowledge (e.g., the term of office for county drain commissioners) and therefore required additional time for researching the questions. However, it is important to note that these instances do not appear to have appreciably affected the course evaluation ratings of the author's subject knowledge.
The evidence therefore indicates that detailed slides reinforce stimulus-response learning, they enable instructors to minimize preparation time, to stay on message, to avoid charges of "going off on tangents," and to virtually eliminate the necessity of addressing questions that are beyond the instructor's scope of knowledge.
The incentives to accentuate the role of stimulus-response learning are magnified by the reward structure of many colleges and universities (Brainard, 2007; Hannan, English & Silver, 1999). The primacy of research and publication in tenure and promotion decisions and a reliance on course evaluations to measure teaching effectiveness are factors that push teachers toward instructional strategies that reinforce stimulus-response learning and thereby reduce the benefits of active learning.
Given the current emphasis on assessment and accountability, an unintended effect of these initiatives is an additional incentive for engaging in stimulus-response/passive learning. The probability that a high proportion of students will demonstrate mastery of the material is maximized when (1) the lectures or classroom activities narrow the amount of material students must study, (2) problem sets or case studies reinforce the materials addressed by lectures or classroom activities (Benedict & Anderton, 2004; Boesen, Lithner & Palm, 2010; Choudhury, Gouldsborough & Gabriel, 2010, Padilla-Walker, 2006), and (3) the assessment mechanism incorporates key words and cues communicated in the first two steps (Boesen, Lithner & Palm, 2010).
The impact of the process is supported by student responses to two semesters of mid-term and final exams. Each of the exams included questions that evaluated the students' ability to replicate information addressed in the readings and class sessions, use knowledge gleaned from the course to analyze a "real world" event or organization, and address a question devoid of keywords or cues from the course. As expected, the percentage of students demonstrating mastery of the material is greatest for the first category of questions and least for the third type of questions. In fact, responses to the third type of question often raised questions as to whether most of the students attended any of the class sessions.
An example of each category of questions is as follows.
Replication: List and briefly describe the criteria for evaluating revenue sources.
Application: One of the tax proposals being floated by the governor and legislators is to impose a sales tax on services, eliminate the Michigan Business Tax (MBT) surcharge, and reduce the MBT tax rate. Identify the criteria for evaluating revenue sources that would be used to support and oppose the tax proposal and the rationale for using each criterion.
Absence of key words and cues: One of the tax proposals being floated by the governor and legislators is to impose a sales tax on services, eliminate the Michigan Business Tax (MBT) surcharge, and reduce the MBT tax rate. Since you have been given the task of selling the plan to the public, describe the strategy you would use to secure public support for the proposal.
The first iteration of the question embodies each of the benefits of stimulus-response learning. The question uses the same terms as those included in class discussions and PowerPoint slides. Students therefore were alerted to the fact that there was a high probability the topic would appear on the exam and they therefore should be prepared to respond to the cues, i.e., terms used in class and on the slides. Due to the reliance on the stimulus (keywords) to elicit the desired response, most of the students demonstrated mastery of this subset of material.
The second version requires students to search state government websites for a description of the Michigan Business Tax, recall the information sought in the preceding version of the question, and determine which criteria would be used to support and oppose the tax proposal. Since the author did not use this or other tax proposals to demonstrate the use of the criteria in tax policy debates, stimulus-response learning could be utilized for the recall portion but not the application portion of the question. If, on the other hand, one or more tax proposals would have been used in class to demonstrate the role of the criteria in selling or opposing the initiatives, then the application portion of the question would have mimicked the problem set component of stimulus-response learning. Under these conditions, it would not be possible to determine the extent to which the students' responses to the application portion of the question were the product of replicating the examples discussed in class or a deep understanding of the material.
The third iteration eliminates the problem of disentangling the extent to which the responses are a replication of class work or an indication of deep understanding and a propensity to apply the material in a work or volunteer setting. Due to the generic nature of the question, it is devoid of the keywords and cues that serve as stimuli for eliciting the desired responses. The responses therefore measure the students' understanding of the material (Boesen, Lithner & Palm, 2010), the extent to which it has been linked to their preexisting knowledge structure (Hay, 2007; Hay & Kinchin, 2008), and the propensity to creatively apply the course materials (Boesen, Lithner & Palm, 2010) to settings outside of class.
In this respect, the results were quite humbling. On each of two occasions when the author included the third iteration of the question on exams, most of the students did not use materials from the readings or class sessions to address the questions. They relied on prior experiences, preferences, or similar bases for their answers. Their answers therefore were more reminiscent of responses provided by individuals who never attended class than those who completed a portion of the course. These outcomes do not bode well for the transference of information from the classroom to the place of employment and public service.
CURRICULAR IMPLICATIONS OF ACTIVE LEARNING STRATEGIES
The instructors' selection of teaching strategies not only affects the extent to which deep learning and understanding occurs but also impacts the amount of time that is required to cover the material. Since the goal of graduate public administration programs is to enhance the higher level skills of Bloom's taxonomy, i.e., application, synthesis, and evaluation (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001), effectiveness in this instance is measured by the proportion of students demonstrating mastery of the second and third types of questions discussed in the previous section. Even though lectures convey a greater amount of information within a given timeframe than is the case for active learning strategies, efficiency is achieved at the expense of the proportion of students who demonstrate mastery of questions involving application and the absence of cues and keywords. Active learning, on the other hand, requires a greater amount of time to cover similar volumes of information but also produces a greater proportion of students demonstrating mastery of higher level skills (Albanese, 2000; Dalley, Candela, & Benzel-Lindley, 2008; Schaefer & Zygmont, 2003; Watters & Watters, 2007).
Given the tradeoff between efficiency and effectiveness, implementation of active learning strategies requires a greater amount of time for conveying knowledge and building skills. As is the case for other professional programs such as construction (Bernold, 2005) and nursing (Dalley, Candela & Benzel-Lendley, 2008), the information explosion and replacing lectures with active learning approaches necessitate the process of decluttering the curriculum, i.e., prioritizing public administration skills and knowledge and jettisoning those components for which there is insufficient time to address.
An example of the prioritization and culling process is provided by the University of Baltimore's MPA program. The program's faculty responded to the state government's emphasis on outcomes measurement by defining essential knowledge and skills and aggregating the items into categories and courses. Due to the external pressures generated by state government policy, the tendency of faculty to protect their turf and areas of specialization was minimized throughout the curriculum revision process (Durant, 1997). The tendency to protect one's courses and areas of specialization can also be minimized by the active participation of alumni, practitioners, and employers in the curriculum revision process or emphasizing the data generated by surveys, focus groups, and advisory committees (Peters, 2009).
The author's evolving efforts to de-clutter his courses and the feedback generated by a Teaching Public Administration Conference paper session suggest the next step in the process involves the categorization of knowledge and skills by their half-lives. Since knowledge and skills with short half-lives are rapidly evolving, addressing the current literature and practices are not sufficient. A variant of the information literacy approach (Frand, Borah & Lippincott, 2007; Jacobs, Rosenfeld & Haber, 2003) suggests the course materials should identify sources of information that will enable the students to continually update and expand their knowledge and skills. The author's initial efforts involved listing sources such as professional organizations on the syllabus and, during one of the class sessions, providing an opportunity for students to examine and categorize the materials available on the organizations' websites. With the exception of the observation "I did not know I could find this information on the National Governors Association web page", anecdotal evidence suggests students were fulfilling the letter but not the purpose of the exercise. They were, in other words, complying with the requirement to categorize the information (e.g., legislative alerts, educational materials, certification, and training) but did not appreciate the role the sources of information could play in their professional lives or the pursuit of life-long learning.
In response to this assessment, the effort to cultivate an appreciation for the information's long-term value incorporates three initiatives. The first is to replace and supplement some of the assigned journal and textbook readings with materials generated by organizations listed on the syllabus. For example, materials on the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) website are viable substitutes for journal articles discussing recent changes in financial reporting standards, and the best practices section of the Government Finance Officers Association webpage provides valuable supplements to textbook materials. A second, and related, initiative is to increase the share of take-home exam questions for which students consult the web pages of professional and governmental organizations. Last semester, student responses to a government budgeting final exam question were based, in part, on information gleaned from the web pages of the Michigan House and Senate Fiscal Agencies and the Michigan Department of Budget. A previous health care policy question was based on health care reform legislation summaries posted on congressional websites and the web pages of advocacy groups such as The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The goal of integrating information from professional and governmental websites can also be expanded to include questions for class discussions. In this instance, the frequency of students accessing websites can be maximized by distributing the questions at least one class session before discussing them in class, scheduling class sessions in a computer lab, or establishing groups so that each group has access to a laptop.
The final initiative is to require students to collect a portion of their oral presentation and research paper materials from foundation, government, and professional organization websites. Since there is a rapid expansion and evolution of information and skills in public administration subfields such as health and transportation, students also are encouraged to access web pages of the organizations associated with their subfields. Even though the requirement is intended to increase the students' appreciation for the range of information provided by the sites, there is a surprising reticence to use the sources. Future syllabi therefore will include a requirement that more than a specified portion of the references must include the web pages of foundations, governments, and/or professional organizations.
As is suggested by the topics listed in Table 1, there often are overlaps between knowledge with short and long half-lives. Even though several budget formats have been used during the past fifty years and performance budgeting has been evolving for more than two decades, the political and economic variables affecting budget formats and the variables underlying an organization's reticence to implement budget initiatives have not significantly changed during the same time periods. In similar fashion, the Government Accounting Standards Board, over the past several decades, has generated several significant changes in accounting standards, but the blurring of distinctions between government and private sector financial reports has unfolded for more than two decades. Similarly, even though the sources and strategies for securing additional revenue have changed, the underlying message of the taxpayer revolt of the 1970s and 1980s has not changed: people are liberal when they can afford to be.
Since these examples, and many others, confirm the adage the more things change, the more they stay the same, a discussion of knowledge with short half-lives, such as the items listed in Table 1, should be interwoven with the related knowledge with long half-lives. By placing short half-life knowledge within a broader context of knowledge with a long half-life, a deeper understanding of the current context and the capacity to understand the ongoing evolution is enhanced.
The topics listed in Table 1 exhibit a similar intersection between skills with short and long half-lives. The sources of information that are the basis of expenditure requests have been stable over time but the formats for conveying the requests to the budget bureau/department and the legislative body have changed over time. In similar fashion, an analysis of the political environment is essential for developing a strategy for securing additional revenue even though the options for generating funds, especially in the case of capital projects, is continually evolving.
The table is also constructed to convey the linkages among knowledge and skills with short and long half-lives. The first item in each cell relates to the generation of expenditure requests, the second addresses the development of financial policies, and the third focuses on the revenue portion of the budget.
SUMMARY AND IMPLICATIONS
Although the literature recognizes the effectiveness of active learning in promoting deep learning and understanding, maximizing the benefits of these teaching strategies is impeded by the ingrained allegiance to stimulus-response/passive learning on the part of both students and faculty. The basis for this allegiance can be summarized in one word: efficiency. The greater the reliance on stimulus-response learning, the less time students need to devote to reading and studying and the less time faculty need to allocate to course preparation, grading assignments, and providing feedback to students. Since the academic success of many students and faculty can be attributed, in part, to learning and playing by the rules of stimulus-response learning, the preference for stimulus-response learning is reinforced by many students' predilection to minimize their responsibility for learning and the faculty's propensity to implement pedagogical techniques that were used by their instructors. Due to these factors, there are disproportionately few rewards for implementing active learning strategies that are not constrained by the parameters of stimulus-response learning, i.e., limiting the permissible range of solutions to those emanating from the assigned readings, lectures, and class discussions, utilizing case studies that reinforce the concepts addressed by the readings, setting parameters/instructions that limit the discussion and potential breadth of questions, and establishing grading criteria that do not encourage the synthesis of information from a variety of courses. The probability of implementing active learning strategies within the constraints imposed by stimulus-response learning is also augmented by university reward structures that encourage faculty to minimize the time demands of teaching so that research and publication can be maximized.
Given the preferences for stimulus-response learning and the resulting constraints on active learning, the limitations can be reduced and the benefits of active learning can be enhanced by two measures: consensus among the faculty and buy in by college and university administrators. Whenever faculty members identify the constraints imposed by stimulus-response learning and agree on strategies for overcoming the restraints when implementing active learning strategies, students experience greater consistency in instructional techniques and expectations. Since active learning requires a greater amount of faculty time for course preparation, and the time demands are augmented by the implementation of strategies that minimize the constraints imposed by stimulus-response learning, the shift toward the purer form of active learning is also dependent on tenure and promotion policies that reflect the added time commitment for instruction. One option is for a greater number of colleges and universities to adopt a two-track tenure and promotion system in which there is a track for teaching and one for research. The distinction would provide an incentive for those in the teaching track to invest a greater amount of time in course preparation and providing feedback to students. However, the extent to which the establishment of a teaching track contributes to the adoption of stimulus-response countermeasures is dependent on the criteria for measuring teaching effectiveness and the composition of assessment mechanisms.
The probability of adopting stimulus-response countermeasures will also be encouraged by the market. The capability of organizations to adapt to a rapidly changing environment is dependent on employing MPA program graduates who have developed critical thinking skills, creativity, the related capacity to "think outside of the box," and information literacy. Given the fact that active learning, not stimulus-response learning, develops these traits, the capacity of MPA programs to produce the skills demanded by the market is dependent on building on the work of ASPA (Henry et al., 2009; Raffel, 2009) and NASPAA (NASPAA Standards 2010) and minimizing the constraints stimulus-response learning imposes on the implementation of active learning strategies. MPA programs that do not unilaterally pursue these goals are in danger of replicating the current situation for MBA programs. Due to the increasing gap between the knowledge and skills needed by the market and those developed by MBA programs, the leading MBA programs are currently in the process of reducing this gap by dramatically revising their program orientations (Case Studies, 2010; Gosling & Mintzberg, 2006; Jackson, 2009).
When active learning and the stimulus-response countermeasures play an increasing role in MPA programs, there is an accompanying need to de-clutter the curriculum. Given the impact of turf, areas of specialization, and reluctance to retool on the curriculum revision processes, the probability of downsizing the curriculum is enhanced by the presence of external pressures or the commitment of MPA chairs/directors to give preference to the inputs of students, alumni, and employers collected through surveys, focus groups, and advisory councils.
Due to the increasing rate of change in knowledge and skills, the adaptability of MPA graduates can also be enhanced by examining the half-life of the knowledge and skills and utilizing this information to develop course content. The author has utilized a derivation of the information literature to develop the course content for knowledge and skills with relatively short half-lives. Instead of emphasizing information literacy's traditional components of identifying the requisites types and sources of information and assessing the information's validity (Frand, Borah & Lippincott, 2007; Jacobs, Rosenfeld & Haber, 2003), the author has integrated into the course materials information that is gleaned from a variety of professional organizations. The approach is intended to familiarize students with sources of information that can be used throughout their careers to update and expand their knowledge and skills. Since the course also includes knowledge and skills with greater half-lives, the foundation is established for students to place the short-term knowledge and skills within the context of the longer term evolution of the profession.
Active learning facilitates deep learning and understanding and thereby enhances the probability that the course material will be recalled and used at a later date. However, achieving these outcomes is influenced by the extent to which the benefits of stimulus-response learning are neutralized, the curriculum is de-cluttered, students are guided to sources for updating their knowledge and skills, and an appreciation for the evolving knowledge and skills is generated by the interweaving of components with short and long half-lives.
* The manuscript is a revision of the paper that was selected for the American Society for Public Administration's Section on Public Administration Education's Award for Best Paper presented at the 2010 Teaching Public Administration Conference, Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 13-15, 2010.
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ROBERT A. PETERS
Western Michigan University
Table 1 Examples of Knowledge and Skills with Short and Long Half-Lives Knowledge Skills Short Budget formats Generate expenditure requests Statutes, regulations, court Develop financial policies decisions, and accounting rules Politics of revenue requests Devise financing strategies Long Politics of budget formats Identify expenditure data sources Legal and accounting trends Conduct legal research Politics of revenue requests Interpret political environment
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|Author:||Peters, Robert A.|
|Publication:||Public Administration Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2011|
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