Colleges looking beyond the lecture


Dr. Eun-Hee Kim's business and government relations class in a lecture hall at George Washington University. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 15, 2012

The lecture hall is under attack.

Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away.

The faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has dedicated this academic year to finding alternatives to the lecture in those subjects. Johns Hopkins, Harvard University and even the White House have hosted events in which scholars have assailed the lecture.

Lecture classrooms are the big-box retailers of academia, paragons of efficiency. One professor can teach hundreds of students in a single room, trailed by a retinue of teaching assistants.

But higher-education leaders increasingly blame the format for high attrition in science and math classes. They say the lecture is a turn-off, higher education at its most passive, leading to frustration and bad grades in highly challenging disciplines.

“Just because teachers say something at the front of the room doesn’t mean that students learn,” said Diane Bunce, a chemistry professor at Catholic University known for signature lessons on the chemistry of Thanksgiving dinners and hangovers. “Learning doesn’t happen in the physical space between the instructor and the student. Learning happens in the student’s mind.”

One goal of the reform movement is to break up vast classrooms. Initiatives at American, Catholic and George Washington universities and across the University System of Maryland are dividing 200-student lectures into 50-student “studios” and 20-student seminars.

But just as important, experts say, is to rethink the way large classes are taught: to improve, if not replace, the lecture model. Faculty are learning to make courses more active by seeding them with questions, ask-your-neighbor discussions and instant surveys.

This ferment is also rippling through lecture halls in the humanities. But policymakers and university leaders are giving the question extra attention in science, technology, engineering and math, the fields collectively known as STEM.

About one-third of students enter college aspiring to STEM majors. Of that group, less than half complete a degree in a STEM field. Some migrate to the humanities. Others drop out.

There are myriad reasons for the mass exodus. The material is demanding. Math-science professors tend to be tough graders. Not everyone can go to a top-flight medical school.

An evolving vision

But college leaders are turning a critical eye to the lecture itself.

“We need to think about what happens when students have a bad experience with the course work,” Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said last month in a speech at Johns Hopkins.

The lecture backlash signals an evolving vision of college as participatory exercise. Gone are the days when the professor could recite a textbook in class. The watchword of today is “active learning.” Students are working experiments, solving problems, answering questions — or at least registering an opinion on an interactive “smartboard” with an electronic clicker.

Since the 1990s, research on pedagogy has shifted from what instructors teach to what students learn. And studies have shown students in traditional lecture courses learn comparatively little.

“You have a professor reading a book to you. It should be insulting,” said Harvard physicist Eric Mazur. “But this model is so ingrained.” Mazur has developed an interactive teaching technique called peer instruction, in which the lecture is broken into chunks. Between topics, Mazur poses questions and students work together to answer them.

The anti-lecture movement is fueled, too, by the proliferation of online lectures, which threaten the monopoly on learning long held by bricks-and-mortar campuses.

To stage a lecture today, it is no longer necessary for either professor or student to enter a classroom. Instead, they can connect via YouTube or iTunes.

( See great online lectures on science, language and more — then and add your favorites to the list .)

General education lecture courses vary little from one university to the next. Students know they can log on to their laptops and watch the very same lecture — or a better one by a celebrity professor at a rival university.

The spread of online courses has raised the currency of top faculty at Harvard, Yale and MIT, who now lecture to the world. But this transformation also has reduced the lecture to a commodity that can be bought or shared. University leaders view the format with rising unease.

“It’s not as satisfying an experience as we would like the students to have,” said Scott Zeger, vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

A dominant method

For all the talk of change, the lecture remains the dominant teaching method across a broad range of first- and second-year math and science courses. The current generation of faculty grew up with the lecture. For them, it is comfortable and familiar. Some students, too, favor a format that doesn’t require them to speak.

Large lecture courses taught by star faculty remain coveted tickets at the nation’s top universities. Some material — psychology, history, Shakespeare — might even be suited to the format.

“If we want to get that whole human being out at the other end, we have to offer them a variety of experiences. And the lecture is part of it,” said Hartmut Doebel, a GWU biologist. “I don’t think we will ever get away from it completely.”

Doebel has redesigned an introductory lecture course as an interactive studio class, with 48 students working around tables in groups of six to nine, part of a Teaching & Learning Collaborative at the Foggy Bottom campus.

Seeking improvement

Other scholars are working to improve, rather than replace, the lecture model. Not surprisingly, college leaders are looking for initiatives that can be scaled up — cheaply — to large classrooms.

At Johns Hopkins, Zeger oversees the Gateway Sciences Initiative and monitors 10 redesigned courses that might hold the future of math-science instruction there.

In one new course, chemistry instructor Jane Greco records her lectures and posts them online as homework, a popular new use for the derided tool. Greco uses her time in the lecture hall as a sort of “office hours for everybody,” an interactive discussion of the lab experiment students completed in the previous session.

One goal, she said, is “to separate out what you’re getting in our classroom that you can’t get online.”

In another experimental course, engineer Michael Falk teaches computer programming to a class of 24. He, too, has put lectures online. Class time is devoted to writing programs and solving problems, with students working together and posting solutions on a projected screen.

A new biology course had 22 freshmen fan out across campus last fall for dirt samples, from which each student culled a new and heretofore unknown virus. Now, the class has picked one virus for genetic mapping.

One recent afternoon, instructor Emily Fisher led a discussion of genome sequencing while colleague Joel Schildbach sat among the students, questioning and cajoling, bridging the roles of teacher, pupil and coach.

“You can’t hang back,” he told the class, during a lull. “You’ve got to talk. You’ve got to argue. You’ve got to contribute.”

Active learning is hard work. Students say the interactive classes are more taxing than any lecture.

“It’s me doing it myself, so I have to know exactly what I’m doing,” said Jillian Tse, 18, a freshman from Burtonsville. Her virus, named Manatee, was chosen by the class for sequencing.

Tse contrasts the experience to the sleepy chemistry lecture she endured last fall: “You kind of just sat there and listened.”

Not all the ideas are new. At the University of Maryland College Park, engineering professors eliminated introductory lecture courses in 1991. Since then, students have spent the crucial first year engaged in actual engineering, building swing sets, helicopters and hovercrafts.

“What generally used to happen, almost across the country, was that the very first experience a student would have with engineering was a very large lecture hall,” said Kevin Calabro, an engineering instructor in College Park. “And I think a ton of students were turned off.”

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