Talking Teaching

October 2, 2016

unplugging a flipped classroom

The always-excellent Faculty Focus has been running a series on techniques for developing and running flipped classrooms. I’ve been reading them with interest, because – as some of you might remember – I’ve ‘flipped’ some (but not all) of my own teaching sessions.

Now, my own classes have been pretty low-tech; with the ‘design-an-organism’ classes (an idea that I learned from my colleague Kevin Gould), students are expected to do a bit of revision of their notes, but the actual lecture-room experience involves nothing more than group work + pens & paper (& a projector to share the results).  So the topic of a recent post naturally caught my eye: The Flipped Classroom Unplugged: three tech-free strategies for engaging students – not least because at my workplace there’s an increasing amount of discussion around ‘going digital’, and we need to take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Dr Barbi Honeycutt’s list includes: adapting the ‘muddiest point’ feedback technique (except now it’s the students who analyse the comments for commonalities and patterns); mind-mapping; and a brain-storming challenge.

I use mind-mapping quite a bit in class, & also in my own thinking & planning. Barbi’s post reminded me of the PhD research of my friend (& then-student), Cathy Buntting, in which she had me teaching students in tutorial classes how to develop mind-maps using the same tools Barbi describes: post-it notes, pens, & large sheets of paper (in place of whiteboards). (Writing concepts on the sticky notes lets students move them around, revising their maps as their understanding changes.) We also encouraged the students to use concept maps in their revision & to plan essays in exams – and Cathy found that the sort of deep learning encouraged by this technique really paid off in those examinations: students who’d learned complex information using concept maps did much better on questions testing complex understandings than those who tended to use shallow, rote learning methods. (There was no difference between the groups when it came to rote-learning tasks.) She also found that a large majority of students thoroughly enjoyed these tutorial sessions and found the mind-mapping technique both enjoyable and helpful.

I’ve used concept mapping widely (though not exclusively; a range of tools is much better) ever since. However, in lecture classes it’s usually been as a means to show how to review knowledge of a topic & plan out an exam answer, after students have spent time in discussion. In future, I really must be a lot more active in encouraging their own use of this tool in lectures, & not just in the smaller, more manageable tutorial sessions.

Thank you, Faculty Focus!

 

September 15, 2016

helping first-year students cope with the reality of university study

For many students making the transition from secondary school to university can be a difficult experience. Their teachers have probably told them that they can be expected to learn more & work harder, but the students don’t really know what that entails beyond doing ‘more of the same’. (They may also have been told that at uni it’s ‘sink or swim’, & that they’ll be left pretty much to their own devices – it was nice to hear from a group of our class reps that they hadn’t found this to be the case and that they felt their learning was well supported.)

Unfortunately doing more of the same, and just doing it harder, may not be a good coping strategy when it comes to self-directed learning. Certainly our experience in first-year biology this year was that many students simply seemed unaware of, or unprepared for, the need to do more than simply attend lectures (or watch them on panopto).  And as Maryellen Weimer points out in her excellent blog on The Teaching Professor, there are an awful lot of distractions: new friends, new social opportunities, new jobs… Plus students can find it hard to recognise when they do or don’t understand something, equating familiarity with knowledge, and are used to a lot more teacher guidance.

And as Maryellen points out,

Additionally, there’s the reluctance of students to change their approaches. When asked what they plan to do differently for the next exam, students often respond that they’ll do what they did for the previous one, only they’ll do it more. Dembo and Seli’s research shows that even after successfully completing developmental courses that teach learning strategies, students didn’t change their approaches. Finally, and even more fundamentally, strategies may be known and understood, but unless they’re applied, they’re worthless.

This is something I hear quite often, from students who’ve been asked to see me because their teachers have identified that the students are struggling. The idea that continuing to do the same, but more & harder, is a hard one to shift sometimes.

But over on The Teaching Professor, you’ll find some useful suggestions for turning this around. Some of these, such as moving to earlier assessment, are changes we’re already making, but there are clearly other tools to use as well. And as our student cohorts’ demographics continue to change (we’re seeing an increasing number of first-in-family enrolments, for example), there’s an urgent need for universities to adapt in turn. Expert teachers such as Dr Weimer can help us with this.

September 21, 2015

does it help when we give handouts to students?

I seem to be asking a lot of questions in my posts lately.

Recently a teaching colleague pointed me at a post entitled 5 common teaching practices I’m kicking to the curb. While I’ve never used 4 of them, it’s common practice (at my uni, anyway) to provide students with a printed study guide** that contains much of the course content, and most of us also make the powerpoints available ahead of class. (In my case, they’re incomplete; I see no real value in providing absolutely anything that I’m intending to cover during a class.) The intention is that students will read through them ahead of coming to class, & identify the bits where they need to pay particular attention &/or ask questions. The reality, of course, is that some do and some don’t.

But the post my friend shared, plus my own recent learning around the effects of laptops in class, have made me think carefully about this practice. Like the author of that post,

[this] system, I felt, made it easy to catch up students who had missed class, and it prevented students from missing important points made during the lecture.

However, handing out a complete set of everything probably does send a message to some students that they don’t need to do anything further. And if they don’t engage with the material covered – in print & in class – then any learning is likely to be transient at best :( This leads me to think that I should be doing more to help students learn how to take notes that will be useful, in a way that means that they aren’t simply focusing on writing everything down & so failing to pay attention to what’s actually being said. This is important, as I’ve noticed that students will do exactly that (write it all down) for each novel slide. Fortunately help is out there, as the author of 5 common teaching practices includes some useful links, including this one to a University of Nebraska (Lincoln) page advising staff on how to help students learn to write good notes.

Perhaps it should be required reading for all of us teaching in first-year papers?

 

** or, in the digital era, a downloadable pdf :)

August 31, 2015

should we stop students using laptops during lectures?

I guess it depends on what they’re using their laptops for.

Most days when I come in at the back of the lecture room & walk down to the front, I’ll see a lot of laptops open & in use. Quite a few students will actually have the (incomplete*) powerpoint for the day’s class open on their screens, but quite a few others are on Facebook (or some arcane form of social media that I haven’t caught up with yet) or just surfing. So when a friend shared an article titled Professors push back against laptops in the lecture hall, I read it with interest & also shared it with one of our big FB student pages for some consumer opinion. (There’s some interesting commentary here, too.)

One of the major reasons many oppose laptop use is their potential to distract students from what’s going on in the classroom, and judging from the ‘consumer feedback’ I received, that can be quite a big issue:

I don’t begrudge others using them except when they are watching videos or checking facebook etc during lectures. That’s very distracting.

It’s only annoying and distracting when people take their laptops and play games or scroll Facebook. Which a lot of people do…

Somewhat surprisingly, that distractive effect extends to students putting their devices to what many of us would regard as ‘legitimate’ use ie searching for information directly related to the class. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ll ask a student to look something up, especially if I think they’re doing something other than class-related work! For example, this brief report cites a study showing that

students who spent a greater proportion of time seeking course-related sites recalled significantly less than those who were more often browsing sites unrelated to the course (r = -.516, p. < .02).

And worse:

the more students used their laptops, the lower their class performance (β = -.179, t(115) = -2.286, p = .024), the less attention they paid to lectures (p = .049), the less clear lectures seemed to them (p = .049), and the less they felt they understood the course material (p = .024)

Yikes! This really piqued my interest, & led me to a 2014 paper by Mueller & Oppenheimer, which has the wonderful title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I’ve certainly observed that many students struggle with long-hand note-taking, to the extent that I’ll get the occasional complaint that “she moves on to the next slide before I’ve copied it all down” in my teaching appraisals. (I do explain that they shouldn’t be ‘copying it all down’…**) And I type much faster than I write, so I can sympathise with students who want to use their laptops for note-taking in class. So did some of my students, commenting that

I actually find typing notes better for me, because my typing speed is so much faster than my writing speed.

and

I would hate it if we were not allowed laptops in lectures anymore! I’d miss half the notes and then have to go home and panopto lectures (or die if they weren’t panoptoed) which just takes up time that i could use studying all my notes properly.

Mueller & Oppenheimer’s paper has really got me thinking. They point out that there is a considerable body of evidence around the efficacy of note-taking, commenting that even without the distraction effect,

laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.

This could have that negative impact on learning by two routes: ‘encoding’, and ‘external storage’. ‘Encoding’ is valuable because – ideally! – students process information as they make their notes, and doing this enhances both their learning & their ability to retain information. ‘External storage’ refers to the ability to review and learn from notes at some later point, including notes taken by others: indeed, we employ note-takers to do this for students who are unable (for a variety of reasons) to take notes themselves.

An important question here is, what are students actually doing when they take those in-class notes? Are they actively summarising what’s been discussed eg via drawing a concept map, or writing a paraphrase? Or are they simply copying, word for word, every single thing I say & show in class?*** While some could argue, “but it doesn’t matter ‘cos I’ll write a summary later”, Mueller & Oppenheimer observe that

verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items.

This underlies their suggestion that while laptops allow more rapid note-taking, if those notes are verbatim, then learning and understanding may actually suffer. In fact, they observe that

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

So where do we go from here? I must admit to being a tad flummoxed at the moment – with the need to offer more flexible learning opportunities and  the current trend to ‘paperless offices’, we’re moving into a more highly digitised world and those laptops aren’t going to go away any time soon. How, then, to overcome the apparent negative effects they may have on student learning? If part of the problem lies with the ability to take appropriate notes, do we need to somehow teach this skill to all our incoming first-years?

 

* I mean, why would I give them the whole lot up front (including the answers to my in-class quizzes)?

** no, seriously! What I’d much prefer is that they read through the material I provide ahead of class, identify the bits where they have no idea what I’m talking about, & then that’s where they should focus any note-taking during class.

*** and if they are taking such fulsome notes – how much attention is being paid to everything else that’s going on in class: the questions, discussion, extra explanations?

 

May 1, 2015

a learning experiment, and a pleasant surprise.

On Wednesday we ran our first whanau tutorial with the first-year students – a class for those students who identify as Māori. The driver for this was the observation that a disproportionate number of the Māori students in my first-year class didn’t do well in our first test, & as a result I asked Kevin, our Faculty’s senior tutor responsible for supporting Māori & Pacific Island students, to see if he could help me by setting up a whanau tutorial.

So he contacted all the Māori students in the class, sorted out a time & day that worked for them, and booked a room, & both of us organised some food and drink. Kev welcomed everyone & one of the students said a karakia (prayer) before we started. Brydget, the senior tutor who runs our first-year bio labs, came along, and so did one of the tutors from Student Learning – who took on the role of asking the ‘silly questions’, to show the students that asking questions really is a good thing & one that’s encouraged. Which gave me the chance to steal one of Brydget’s lines: that the only silly question is the one you didn’t ask :)

There was a test coming up and so the students wanted to work through questions from previous tests, plus they wanted to know how to learn (& remember) things like the characteristics of some animal phyla. I did a bit of talking but for much of the time we had the students working together in groups after a bit of an explanation from me. It was great seeing the energy levels, the engagement, and the fun in the classroom. Brydget & I both try for that when we’re teaching, but this was a whole new level. It was quite a salutory eye-opener for me, as I’ve liked to think I’m an ‘inclusive’ teacher, but I’d never had this level of engagement from this particular cohort before, and I’ve learned now that I still have a long way to go..

We ended up going way over time and the students were buzzing when they left. Kevin always does a survey for his group work and I was really looking forward to the results: there’s a lot of evidence available on the effect of supporting Māori students’ learning styles, but I wanted to see how our own students had perceived the session. Fourteen of the 16 attendees completed the survey, & it turned out that

  • all 14 agreed that they could understand the presenter.
  • they loved the learning environment, commenting that it was easier to ask questions; they liked the interactions and group work & the opportunity to work out the answers; felt that I’d explained things clearly & liked it that I made sure they understood before we went on to a new topic; the sheer informality & friendly environment went down well.
  • they’d all recommend it to their friends (yay!) & rated it as either very good or excellent
  • and felt it was a great way to revise.

As I said, a salutory learning experience for me. I’ve always tried to make classes inclusive, interactive & so on, but it was obvious that the set-up of this particular workshop – with its focus on a specific cohort – provided the spark that was missing.

Even better, next morning a lot of the whanau participants came along to a standard tut with a lot of other students there, as they usually do – but this time things were different. They were much more active in the class, spoke up more and asked more questions than before; their confidence was at a whole new level. They were the only ones to point out to me that I’d made a mistake with labelling a diagram :) (And I said thank you, & that I appreciated it, & it showed they really understood that particular topic.) And afterwards some came up to say how much they’d enjoyed the whanau tut, and a couple followed me back to my office to ask more questions – also a first. And after the test last night I heard that they felt they were much better prepared, this time round. (I haven’t started the marking yet, but I am sooo hoping that this translates into improved grades!)

So yes, we’ll continue this for the rest of the semester, and on into the next half of the year. There’s nothing novel in what we did, & I certainly can’t claim any credit (there’s a lot in the literature on how best to help Māori students in tertiary classrooms eg here, here, here, & here). I’m just mentally kicking myself, and wishing we’d done it much sooner.

And I’m thinking: the Tertiary Education Commission has identified Maori and Pacific Island students as groups that TEC would like to see increasingly more involved with tertiary education. And to do that, and to maximise their learning success, we do need to reorganise our classrooms: eg do more flipping; get used to a higher level of chatter as students work together to solve problems; reduce the formality inherent in a ‘normal’ teacher-driven lecture class & sometimes become learners alongside our students. And that requires recognition that students’ needs have changed since those of my generation were on the learners’ side of the lectern, and that learning styles can and do differ & can be accommodated by using a range of teaching techniques. In other words, a classroom culture shift – one that sees educators recognising that they, too, can be learners when it comes to meeting the needs of a changing student demographic.

And of course, the evidence is already there that making these changes benefits all students.

November 5, 2014

reflections on using AdobeConnect in a tutorial

Recently I went to a couple of seminars/tutorials on using AdobeConnect in teaching & learning. As I vaguely remember saying somewhere else, this bit of software looked a bit like panopto might, if it were on steroids, & I could see how it could be a very useful tool for use in my classes. Not least because (as you’ll have gathered from my last post), there’s some concern around student engagement, particularly among those who don’t actually come to lectures, & AdobeConnect seemed to offer a means of enhancing engagement even if students aren’t physically present.

I decided that I’d like to trial it in the two pre-exam tutorials I’m running this week (my class has its Bio exam on Friday – the last day of the exam period. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing for most of the upcoming weekend :( ) I would really, really like to use it during lectures, so that students not physically on campus can still join in, but, small steps…

So, first I set up my ‘meeting’. Work has made this easy by adding an AdobeConnect widget to the ‘activity’ options in Moodle, so that was pretty straightforward; I just needed to make the session ‘private’ so that students signed in using their moodle identity. The harder part of the exercise lay in deciding what to actually do when in the meeting room. In the end I set it up with a welcome from me, a ‘chat’ area, so students could ‘talk’ with each other & ask questions, and a ‘whiteboard’ so that I could draw (& type) in response to those questions. And, when the class actually started, I spent a few minutes showing everyone there (the 20 or so who were there in the flesh, & the 8 present via the net) what each of those ‘pods’ was for & how to use them.

You certainly have to keep on your toes when interacting with a mix of actual & virtual class members! My thoughts & observations, in no particular order:

  • remember to press ‘record’ right at the start, if you’re intending to record a session!
  • next time (ie tomorrow) I’ll remind those physically present that they can log into the meeting room too – this could, I suppose, be distracting, but it also means that they would be able to participate in polls, for example. I did it myself, at the launch of our ‘connect week’, just to see what everything looked like from the on-line perspective.
  • it was really, really good to see the ‘virtual’ students not only commenting & asking questions, but also answering each other’s questions. I hadn’t expected that and it was a very positive experience.
  • but do make sure that you encourage this cohort to take part; they need to know that you welcome their participation.
  • the rest of the class seemed to quite enjoy having others interacting from a distance.
  • next time, I’ll bring & wire in my tablet, & use that rather than the room computer. This is because I do a lot of drawings when I’m running a tut, and while you can draw on the AC whiteboards, using a mouse to do this is not conducive to nice smooth lines & clear, precise writing. I <3 touchscreens!
  • it’s very important to remember to repeat questions asked by those in the room: the microphone’s not likely to pick their voices up, & if you don’t repeat the question then the poor virtual attendees won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.
  • with a pre-exam tut it’s hard to predict what resources might be used, in terms of powerpoints, web links & so on. For a lecture I’d be uploading the relevant files right at the start (ppts, video links & so on), but today I was pretty much doing things on the fly. However, I’m running another tut tomorrow & have put links to a couple of likely youtube videos into the meeting page already.
  • Internet Explorer seems to ‘like’ some AC actions more than Chrome; the latter wasn’t all that cooperative about ‘sharing my screen’, which seemed to me to be a better option than uploading at one point in proceedings.
  • as a colleague said, doing it this way meant that overall I had more people in class than would have been the case if I’d only run it kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) – what’s not to like?
  • for me, the whole session was quite invigorating, & I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning to use a new piece of software to improve the classroom experience.

Mind you, on that last – it was my impression that the classroom experience was improved. And you’ll have gathered that I truly did have fun. But I’m not a learner in the way that my students are. So I asked them for feedback (interestingly, so far I’ve had only one comment + my response on Moodle, but as you’ll see we’ve had a reasonable dialogue on Facebook) – and here’s what they said:

BIOL101 Adobe Connect tutorial

So next year I will definitely be using this during lectures, and to interact with my Schol Bio group & their teachers – and I think we’ll definitely have one tut a week (out of the total of 6 that we offer) that’s via AC, so that students that can’t come onto campus can still  get the benefits of that sort of learning environment.

November 4, 2014

angst around lecture recordings

These days there seems to be a fair bit of angst in the tearoom, centred around using panopto: students are watching panopto recordings (or not) rather than coming to class, and for some colleagues this seems to be a Bad Thing & should be Stopped.

Now I’ll admit that I see a drop in numbers attending the lecture, from time to time – usually ahead of a test in another paper, when students want a bit more revision time, or when there’s an essay due for me & they’ve left things till the last minute. And there are a range of other reasons for students preferring ‘virtual’ classes over the real thing (eg Karnad, 2013). Personally I’m fine with that; students have a lot of conflicting demands on their time and if they choose to manage those demands by dealing with the most pressing issue first & catching up on class later, I don’t see it as a huge problem (apart from the fact that I wish some of them would develop some better time management skills, & maybe we need to look at how we help with that). And the reality is that we’re going to come under increasing pressure to deliver a truly flexible learning experience as population demographics change.

So it’s saddening to hear comments along the lines of ‘well, we should leave the recordings up for just a week, to force students to watch them soon after delivery’. This really runs counter to the idea of supporting flexibilty, & also of encouraging truly independent learning. I mean, on the one hand I’m often told that our students are adults now and we shouldn’t be keeping tabs on things like lab attendance, and yet on the other there’s this quite punitive attitude around coming to/viewing lectures. Talk about contradictions!

Yes, of course there are things we can do better! A conversation with each semester’s classes around using lecture recordings ‘properly’ eg watching in a timely manner, and what the literature tells us about the results of not doing this, certainly wouldn’t go amiss, and would help our students really start to come to terms with the realities of a modern university. (Here’s an example of good practice in this aspect of teaching & learning, one that I think that my own institution could well emulate.)

But we should also think about how to change our own techniques so that students actually want to be in every lecture that they can possibly attend. If they perceive no additional benefits in a kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) class, compared to a recording, then there is no incentive to come along. As the (anonymous) author of this excellent resource for teachers says

Students will want to attend the live lecture because of the way you structure it to include some interactivity and will then obtain further value from reviewing portions of the live lecture as they add to their notes and reflect in order to deepen their understanding.

While the author makes it clear that making lecture recordings available can have a positive impact on student learning and on retention, they also point out that there’s little benefit overall if lectures follow the ‘traditional’ format. (Now where have we heard that before?)

Research suggests that recording traditional lectures adds relatively little pedagogical value to the student learning experience. Therefore add pedagogical value by ‘seeding’ the face-to-face lecture with student tasks or activities, or follow-up questions for discussion and research, so that students can benefit from reviewing your lecture recording and use it to add depth to the reflections that they are already making in the live lecture.

For after all,

[the] main goal of providing recorded lectures is to engage students in blended learning experiences that facilitate a flexible self-paced mode of learning and review that supplements rather than replaces the need to attend the face-to-face lecture.

Karnad, A. (2013) Student use of recorded lectures: A report reviewing recent research into the use of lecture capture technology in higher education, and its impact on teaching methods and attendance. LSE Report.

University of Canterbury (no date) Best practices for recording lectures. Echo 360 for staff

June 9, 2014

carl wieman on active learning

Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the ‘STEM’ subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl WiemanWieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman’s results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.

Wieman goes on to say

However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?

Personally I’d go for the former; there’s a wealth of information out there now. What’s needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there’s a challenge!

C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407304111

June 1, 2014

“If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers”

This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.

There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

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