Breathing Life Into the Lecture Hall

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

Nearly 200 students sat in the large lecture hall, staring down at their professor, Edward F. Redish, holding pencils at the ready to take notes in Fundamentals of Physics. It looked like a traditional lecture course, but appearance is where the tradition ended.

Instead of spending 50 minutes putting students to sleep by lecturing about position, velocity and acceleration, Redish, a University of Maryland professor, kept the students awake by getting them actively involved in the lesson -- all 192 of them.

He called on his students by name, having taken and studied their pictures. He frequently directed students to solve a problem with their neighbors or register opinions with a "clicker" system that, within seconds, calculates the answers and shows him the response. Sometimes he performs an experiment or shows part of a movie. And if he sees someone doing a crossword puzzle, he is liable to walk over and help out.

This is Redish's version of the time-honored college lecture course, which is undergoing significant change at some universities because of technological innovations and the desire to hold the attentions of the highly structured 21st-century student.

"Lecturing is not good for children and other living things," said Redish, who spent 25 years in theoretical nuclear physics and now researches how students learn physics. "They don't really learn very much in a lecture."

Once, all professors spent entire classes talking nearly nonstop while students furiously scribbled notes. Today, a growing number of professors are abandoning that tradition, saying there are better ways to keep students focused and learning.

"Sooner or later, you lose track of what the point is of the lecture. Your mind wanders," said Eric Mazur, a Harvard University physics professor whose book "Peer Instruction" is widely used among educators looking for alternative ways to teach. "For some people, it will happen seven minutes into the lecture; for others, 20 minutes. The problem is that when that happens, you are lost."

Or as Wenimo Okoya, 19, a junior in Redish's course, put it: "It's boring. A lot of students fall asleep."

Gideon Haile, a 20-year-old junior, said the reason he loves Redish's class is because he so "interactive." But, he said, "he's the only one."

Professors who have embraced new techniques frequently have turned to PowerPoint, saying it fits the lifestyle of today's students, who grew up with computers, cellphones and other forms of technology and whose lives have been far more structured than those of past generations.

Devon Welsh, 21, a junior and natural resource management major at U-Md., said it allows teachers to "give you the simplified version of what they are saying."

But some professors say it is making a bad thing worse. Students spend all their time scribbling down what's on the PowerPoint presentation, they say, and that leads professors to structure lessons around the visual presentation rather than creating a lecture with a beginning, middle and end that tells a story and can excite students.

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