Using Arts-Based Research to Facilitate Active Learning
Patricia Leavy, Sociology and Criminology
"Beyond Films in the Classroom: Using Arts-Based Research to Facilitate Active Learning"
Professors often turn to films as a teaching tool. We typically use film to illustrate, punctuate and engage. I myself integrate films into most of my courses. However, as a result of my recent explorations into teaching and learning strategies coupled with my research in the area of innovative approaches to scholarship, I have come to realize that although films can be useful, they are primarily a passive method of engagement and there are alternatives.
I realize that sounds like an oxymoron but consider the following example. One could spend their free time watching a television program and be "engaged" in so far as the program captures their attention. Contrast this scenario with spending one's free time taking a walk, doing yoga, playing tennis, or knitting. In the second scenario the person is actively engaged. I suggest the same is true in our teaching.
I have recently replaced some film viewing with arts-based research in three of my courses. The results astounded me and I have come to realize that, in essence, I swapped passive learning for active learning.
Here's how I came to arts-based research as a teaching tool. I have spent the past several years exploring innovative approaches to research methodology. During this time I began working with arts-based research practices (ABR). These methodological tools, useful for data collection, analysis and representation, adapt the tenets of the creative arts in order to address social research questions in engaged ways.
In qualitative research, ABR offers the following possibilities: unsettling stereotypes, building coalitions across difference, promoting dialogue, cutting through jargon and other prohibitive barriers, extending public scholarship, building critical consciousness, raising awareness, accessing subjugated knowledges, and expressing feeling-based dimensions of social life (such as love, loss, and grief).
As a sociology professor at an undergraduate college I wondered if ABR could benefit my students. In the interest of disclosure I should note that I had considerable reservations. I wondered if it would be worth the trouble to try and fit new material into these courses-like many professors, I can barely adequately cover the necessary course material. Despite these concerns, I decided to take a risk.
I incorporated ABR into three courses, two research methods courses (one 200-level required survey of research methods course and one 400-level qualitative research seminar) as well as a sociology elective on popular culture. I decided to use ABR differently in these courses in order to evaluate the contexts in which ABR was beneficial to my students. Happily, in all three instances the use of ABR added enormously to student learning without diminishing other course content. I would go so far as to say that student learning was transformed.
In research methods, I spent one class period covering ABR after students read about two-thirds of my ABR book titled Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (Guilford Press, 2009). I "found room" for the new material simply be removing one short film from the course. The students' final course project required them to conduct a small-scale content analysis, either quantitatively or qualitatively.
In addition to their conventional research paper they were required to represent their findings using an arts-based approach (collage, poem, script) with a brief artist-researcher statement explaining their project. The resulting work was outstanding. Significantly, although some were initially apprehensive about doing something "arty", the result was a much higher performance level on the traditional paper. I believe this is because students became more invested in their projects and immersed themselves more fully in their data.
I had similar results incorporating ABR into my pop culture course called "Images & Power." Students read about four chapters on ABR, completed for one class meeting in which the material was reviewed. Integrating this whole new subject area again only required me to omit one short film from the class. Students added an ABR component to their final mass media research paper. The results were again astounding. After teaching this course for about a decade I can say without hesitation that this produced the strongest group of traditional research papers that I have received. And they got a taste of a whole new subject!
I spent the most time on ABR in my advanced weekly qualitative seminar. Students read an intro level ABR book in its entirety and one seminar meeting was devoted to reviewing it. I "found the time" by removing one short film and then fiddling with the syllabus a bit without removing any content-(pairing down the time spent on an in-class activity). The results were again impressive.
Students greatly enjoyed the ABR unit and found that studying ABR helped them to better understand the core assumptions of traditional qualitative practice without a meaningful reduction in other course content. Students also added an ABR component to their final in-depth interview project. Once again, the quality of the traditional papers improved markedly as students "got to know their data" on a more meaningful level.
With minimal effort on my part, and virtually no reduction in standard course content, the addition of ABR greatly increased student learning and engagement in all three courses. I was delighted that students both learned "more" but also that they learned the regular material better. I suggest arts-based research can be a powerful teaching tool in a wide range of interdisciplinary courses.
I further suggest that although films too can be an important learning aid, they are not the only one nor are they always the best. Perhaps we often turn to film as a reliable "standby." In my experience I found that by omitting one film and incorporating ABR I, in essence, substituted passive learning for active learning.