July 15th, 2015

Why Change Our Approach to Teaching?


Professor in lecture hall

Jennifer Roberts first noticed the difference a few years ago in Geology 101.

The course regularly draws 300 or more students a semester, and Roberts, an associate professor of geology, was teaching in much the same way she had since she took over the course in 2002: lecture and exam.

Problem was, exam scores were dropping, she said, and as she interacted with students, she found that they had less understanding of the material than students had had just two or three years before.

So Roberts set out to transform the class, which is now called The Way the Earth Works, into an active learning format, with in-class group work, student presentations, clicker questions aimed at prompting discussions, and lots of interactions with students. With the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, she began moving away from what Bitting calls the “fire-hose approach” to teaching and concentrating on helping students learn core skills through hands-on activities.

Research has long cast doubt on the use of lecture in education. Donald Bligh, in his book What’s the Use of Lecture?, provides some of the most compelling evidence, reviewing more than 200 college-level courses in several disciplines. The biggest benefit of lecture is that it is an efficient means of reaching a large number of students in a single setting. Bligh argues that lectures can be useful in conveying information but that they do little to promote thought or problem-solving abilities, or to change behavior. Rather, they reinforce ideas, values, and habits that students have already accepted.

Despite the evidence about lecture’s weaknesses, two-thirds to three-quarters of faculty members continue to rely it, according to research summarized by Derek Bok of Harvard in his book Our Underachieving Colleges. As Bok argues, though, facts, theories, and concepts delivered in lecture have little value unless students can apply them to new situations, ask pertinent questions, make reasoned judgments, and arrive at meaningful conclusions.

Bitting urges instructors to think about it this way: “You may have a lecture that works to get students to take a multiple choice test really effectively,” she said. “But when you have a conversation with that student after your semester, they may not actually remember anything. Or they may not know how to make sense of it outside of the context of the little paragraph in the textbook where they read it the first time.”

Transforming a class, especially a large lecture class, isn’t easy. Roberts has essentially applied the scientific method to her teaching of Geology 101, experimenting with a variety of techniques. Some have failed; others have succeeded. “There has been a lot struggle but also self-reflection on my process and then on the learning process in general,” she said.

Roberts said her experience with active learning in a large class had forced her to step away from the class material and recognize that students “are not me.”

“They don’t learn like I do,” she said. “And that’s OK. But my job is to have them learn, so I need to think about what’s the best to have everybody do the best they can and to learn.”

The adjustments in an active learning class can be difficult for students, as well. As Catherine Sloan writes in Change magazine, millennials “have a deep fear of failure,” so getting them to take intellectual risks takes patience. Nor do they deal well with ambiguity. They like clear, firm solutions to academic problems, and pushing them to think beyond a single “right answer” also takes work from instructors.

Tradition has also made changing the format of classes more challenging. Students have grown accustomed to sitting passively in lectures, reviewing instructors’ notes or slides posted online, attending study sessions (again, passively), cramming for exams, and moving on. Many resent having to take an active role in class—isn’t that the professor’s job?—and in their learning in general.

Even so, many students find the expectations of their professors lower than they had anticipated. Sloan writes that “the most common complaint we hear from students is not that their professors are too demanding but that they don’t hold firmly to deadlines and expectations.”

Bitting also urges instructors to look more broadly at student learning.

“Even if your lecture is working really well for getting your students to take a multiple choice test, if they’re not excited about it and they don’t care about it when they leave, maybe you’re not doing the job you want to do,” she said.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

This article originally appeared in Teaching Matters, the blog for the University of Kansas, Center for Teaching Excellence. Reprinted with permission.

  • Perry Shaw

    The basic substance of this article is not revolutionary, but I noted the hard work that Jennifer Roberts put into experimentation in teaching. Only when tenure and promotion are linked to quality teaching as much as (if not more than) research and publication can we expect a growing number of faculty to invest this sort of time and effort needed to promote quality learning – rather than simply resorting to the default setting of lecture.

  • Leigh Zeitz

    I liked your article. It is important to create an active learning environment.
    What about online? I am interested in learning how to create an active learning environment for my online classes? We meet F2F through video conferencing every other week.

    Any ideas or references?


  • James Claycomb

    Why can't we recognize that our culture has been and is being "dumbed down" by its fixation on the electronic screen as opposed to the printed page. And if so then is accommodation the best answer. It may be the most popular answer but it means the demise of academia. Go to http://www.thenewatlantis.com and read some of the pertinent articles there archived on this topic.

    Professor James Claycomb

  • Ravindran Kanningat

    I perfectly agree with Perry Shaw, the information, perhaps, well known to majority of teachers. But what we require more is; how to go for it to make class-room more learning oriented than teaching oriented. Jennifer Roberts could have explained more of examples of her class-room activities and how was the response from students to those class activities. This could have benefited the readers somewhat to apply in their own subject of teaching. However, any innovative initiatives in the class-room is always welcome, but it require tremendous amount of time to invest from faculty. I appreciate Jennifer's dedication to make class more interactive and fun for students to learn better.

    • E.G., Instructor

      I agree. I am often frustrated by reading articles that make statements regarding how we have to change teaching but then don't go the distance and provide ideas/sites/suggestions about how it is done. Sometimes they refer to a book that, again, does not provide concrete ideas that have been used and work.

      Each of us seems to be recreating the wheel rather than improving on the one that is already in use.

      • @PHintermann

        Dear E.G. Have you checked out the original article? You find the link below the article. – It appears she lets students draw/sketch their ideas or explanations, prior to her doing so herself. It remminds me of the first steps of Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction. He asks clicker questions in order for students to commit to an answer before 'convincing' their neighbours.
        Not sure Jennifer Roberts asks her students to interact. My hypothesis would be for a condition facilitating interaction to be more effective than merely an active condition. It seems we got ourselves a nice experiment for sections/tutorials.

  • Debbie Ruston

    Important distinction in the article: "Despite the evidence about lecture’s weaknesses, two-thirds to three-quarters of faculty members continue to rely it' The definition of insanity, as we have heard many times, is doing the same things expecting different results.

    "The way we have always done it" is not a reason to continue with something that isn't working and is outdated.

  • Doug Ward

    It's impossible to get into too many details in an article of this length. The site for our teaching center has more than 100 course portfolios that do go into detail. These include online and face-to-face courses in many different disciplines: http://cte.ku.edu/portfolios

  • Pingback: Teaching Tip: Lecturing in Your OM Class | Jay and Barry's OM Blog()

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