Reforming Higher Ed #3: Teach Differently

Student using smartphone

Student Texting

Faculty anecdotes about the “cell phone follies” abound. Increasingly, students text one another, interact through Facebook or Twitter, or surf the Internet rather than attend to what is happening in class. They often disrupt others, and learning prescribed material comes to a halt. When called to account, as one of my friends reports, a student might respond with a loud “F#%&k you!” What is going on? Is this generation of students merely a bunch of rude, spoiled brats? Perhaps, but I’m more inclined to think that they merely regard what happens in class to be irrelevant to their lives and, worse, boring.

It’s No Longer 1970

What used to work in teaching no longer does (if, in fact, it ever did very well). One of the best classroom teachers I ever encountered was Professor Langdon

Langdon Gilkey

Prof. Langdon Gilkey

Gilkey at the University of Chicago. He was so mesmerizing as a lecturer that I learned how to write down nearly everything he said while trailing his speaking by about two sentences. Somewhere in my basement, there is a box of notes containing what amounts to transcripts of his lectures for several courses. But this is not typical! I’m weird! This is merely how I learned.

What I’ve found since those heady days is that teaching and learning are not so simple, that effective learning is difficult to achieve, and that keeping students engaged requires hard work and cleverness. And that means attending to what neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and others can tell us about learning.

Experimental Teaching

Research shows that as human beings who evolved millions of years ago, we really haven’t come very far. We are still wired to attend to threats, to notice motion, sounds, and smells, and to retain in our memories those events that involve several of the senses and accompanying threats together. (For details, see Brain Rules by John Medina.) Absent such stimulation, after hearing another person lecture for about 10 minutes, our attention begins to wander. Reading long swatches of text typically results in inferior retention of the material for most people. (Note how truly effective writing for web pages is more brief.)

A few years ago, I conducted an experiment to see whether the use of PowerPoint slides could improve student performance in my introductory courses. After 4 terms, using PowerPoint in half of my introductory sections, I concluded that their aggregate performance was better by about 10 percentage points compared to the non-PowerPoint sections. While that was not scientific, it was good enough for me. Nevertheless, I should have gone further and investigated what research concludes about the use of images, video, sound, etc. Putting text outlines on slides and making the files available outside of class helped, but I should have done more.

Measures that faculty across all disciplines should consider include

  • Limiting lecture segments to no more than 10 minutes.
  • Using images to illustrate major points.
  • Employing brief video clips (2-5 minutes) to enhance retention.
  • Requiring role playing and using team projects to reinforce active learning and critical thinking.
  • Requiring online collaboration, not just participation in discussion boards, to complete research projects.
  • Perhaps utilizing smartphone technology and social media to enhance learning.

The last suggestion brings us back to the “cell phone follies.” Using these mobile devices is not boring; for many, it is akin to an addiction. The visual, tactile, and sometimes auditory senses are all involved. There is also the sense of being informed, up to date, plugged in. Should educators simply eschew them altogether in the classroom, or should they try to take advantage of them to promote learning?

Purdue University has implemented a new technological program, Hotseat, that makes use of mobile devices to improve communication in large lecture classes.

So, does it work? Does Hotseat improve learning, at least in large lecture classes, by allowing students to interact with their professors? A thorough discussion of issues, both pro and con, can be found at “Hotseat: Opening the Backchannel in Large Lectures” on Educause’s website. Read it, and judge for yourself.

While I have no intention of recommending a technological quick fix to improve learning in colleges and universities, I do think that college faculty should attend to the sort of research that can lead to innovation in teaching. Perhaps most important, faculty should experiment, try new approaches, assist researchers in finding out what works and what doesn’t. Teaching the way one was taught isn’t good enough.

What do you think? What sort of innovations have you tried or observed that are effective? What do you suggest?


One response to “Reforming Higher Ed #3: Teach Differently

  1. Pingback: Still Killing Your Participants With PowerPoint? – Making the Case for Activity Based Learning » Team Training Unlimited Blog

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