Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Enhancing Academic Achievement by Identifying and Minimizing the Impediments to Active Learning

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Enhancing Academic Achievement by Identifying and Minimizing the Impediments to Active Learning

Article excerpt


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.


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. …

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