Where goes the Lecture?

Black and white image of universal sign figure at podium with a point, overlaid with red prohibited sign -- a circle with a slash through it.At Johns Hopkins there have recently been discussions among faculty and high-level administrators around the concept of “blowing up” the lecture. Nationally, we hear and read that the lecture is ripe to be “disrupted” and replaced by online, hybrid, or flipped course experiences. This is a debate that arouses strong feelings for and against the age-old pedagogical method. But what if you aren’t in a position to re-invent your lecture-based course? The three articles reviewed in today’s post offer some insights into best practices for working within the lecture format.

In How to Teach in an Age of Distraction [The Chronicle of Higher Education October 2, 2015], Sherry Turkle, Professor, Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, looks at the broader issue of reaching students immersed in their electronic devices. As almost all instructors today face this challenge, the article is well worth a read, whether or not lecturing is your mode of content delivery.

Turkle defends, with caveats, the lecture, citing anecdotal evidence from colleagues that with MOOCs and flipped classes, students often miss interacting face-to-face with an esteemed faculty member. “A student in an MIT class acknowledges that she gets to listen to the professor speak in an online video, but she wishes she could hear him lecture in person. He is an international figure and has a reputation for being charismatic. She feels she is missing out.” Turkel argues that watching course content videos alone in their dorm rooms isolates students and increases their connecting learning with using electronic devices. Further, she says,

But for all its flaws, the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged. What makes the greatest impression in a college education is learning how to think like someone else, appreciating an intellectual personality, and thinking about what it might mean to have one of your own. Students watch a professor thinking on her feet, and in the best cases can say: “Someday I could do that.” What the young man meant by showing up to “something alive” was really showing up to someone alive — a teacher, present and thinking in front of him.

As stated above, Turkel’s essay focuses primarily on the value of face-to-face conversation and collaboration, arguably not the primary components of most lecture-based courses. A well-designed flipped class would be more likely to foster these pedagogies. But, in Turkel’s defense, the flipped-class trend has not guaranteed that all flipped classes are better learning experiences for students than lectures.

In Turkel’s own classes, which are small seminars, students agreed to put away their devices and focus on the discussion at hand. It is not out of the question to ask that your students do the same in a lecture class. Helping students understand what they will gain by doing so may go a long way towards getting buy in. Turkel’s essay will help you make those points.

There are other reasons to eschew the old-fashioned sage-on-the-stage approach in favor of more interactive teaching practices. Annie Murphy Paul in Are College Lectures Unfair?, an opinion piece in The New York Times [September 12, 2015] asks if college lectures discriminate. Specifically, are lectures “… biased against undergraduates who are not white, male and affluent?”

Paul cites studies conducted by scholars at the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin that suggest that the lecture format puts women, minorities, low-income, and first-generation college students at a disadvantage. The studies showed that use of active learning strategies in the classroom reversed the effect. “Research comparing the two methods [lecture vs active learning] has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families.”

Although Paul looks to flipped-format courses as the answer, there are many examples of ways in which to incorporate active learning into a lecture by using classroom polling systems (clickers), think-pair-share exercises (see more on this below), and other strategies. See Twenty Ways to Make Lectures More Participatory from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning for more ideas.

Regardless of the content-delivery format, instructors should understand the value of creating an inclusive classroom climate and the importance of teaching to students with diverse backgrounds. The JHU TILE project (Toolkit for Inclusive Learning Environments) is a good place to go for resources. I highly recommend watching the video The Affective Domain: Classroom Climate.

The third article, What If You Have to Lecture?  by David Gooblar, Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of Iowa [The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae: Pedagogy Unbound, February 18, 2015] addresses the conundrum directly.  Gooblar offers three ideas to keep students engaged for those who “…simply don’t have the option of abandoning a lecture-dominated course.”

Gooblar’s first suggestion is to use regular quizzing. He cites an earlier article he wrote on the benefits of frequent low-stakes testing for student retention of information. He offers the suggestion of handing out a short multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the class that students will answer as the lecture progresses. All of the questions will be covered in your lecture. The quizzes are collected and graded at the end of every class with each quiz counting as a small percentage of the final grade. An even better pedagogical approach, Gooblar proposes, would be to have students answer the questions at the beginning of the class before the lecture, then correcting their own answers during the lecture. This approach allows students to see what they don’t understand and helps them focus on learning those points.

Gooblar second idea is to incorporate group work, a common active-learning strategy, into your lectures by putting students in pairs. Pairs work best in large lecture settings as it is easy for students to turn to the person next to them, and every student is accountable. He describes the classic think-pair-share activity, but also suggests, “Pair students up and, at various points throughout the lecture, pause and ask the pairs to share and compare notes for the previous section of the lecture. This is a good way for students to discover if they’ve missed anything important, and for misconceptions to reveal themselves quickly.”

Thirdly, he recommends that you “cultivate confusion” by asking students either in the middle of the lecture or at the end to write down their “muddiest point.” If you do this in the middle of class you should then call on students and have them read their responses so that you can address concepts that are not clear.  If students are asked at the end of class, collecting the responses, reviewing them and then responding at the beginning of the next lecture to clarify misunderstandings will help keep them on track. Gooblar maintains that this “…is a great way to break students out of the role of passive listeners….” This kind of formative assessment is a good practice for an instructor as well.

Even if you must lecture, you can ask students to be present and reinforce that by keeping them actively engaged. They can’t be on their cell phones if they are being called upon to answer questions, take graded quizzes, and pair up to discuss concepts with classmates. Be aware of the inequities that lecturing may bring and address issues of classroom climate at the beginning of your course. Use formative assessment to benefit you and your students. As you can see, a lecture doesn’t have to be a passive experience.

*********************************************************************************************************

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image remixed from Pixabay.com images

Should you ban laptops (and other devices) from your classroom?

Students using laptops in a lecture hall, view from the back looking at the students' screens.This question was cogently addressed in two recent articles. One by Tal Gross, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, appeared December 30, 2014 in a Washington Post op-ed piece titled, This Year, I Resolve to Ban Laptops from my Classroom. Gross references the other article, by Clay Shirkey, professor at New York University, Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away, which appeared September 8, 2014 on Medium. To be clear, neither is teaching in an active learning classroom where laptops might be considered a necessary piece of equipment for the pedagogical process.  Gross describes a lecture format with 85 students. Shirkey, who call himself “an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, [and] a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor” asked the students in his “fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.”

Shirkey noticed a change over time as mobile devices grew to be both more technically robust and widely used. Rather than being a useful tool for note taking, these devices have become a distraction. There is also the issue of multitasking. Shirkey states, “We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.” Any number of studies have shown that multi-taskers are deluded in their belief that the practice enhances their work performance. The seductive immediacy of social media makes it even more difficult for students using laptops, tablets, and cellphones in the classroom to focus on the material being taught. But what tipped Shirkey over was the paper Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers, with results that “demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.” In justifying his decision to have students put away their laptops (and other devices), he says that he now sees teaching and learning as a collaborative effort with his students. “It’s not me demanding that they focus — its (sic) me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.”

Tal Gross focuses on another aspect of the issue—that of note taking. Typing on laptops can become “an exercise in dictation.” In a study undertaken by Pam A. Mueller (Princeton) and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (UCLA) titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the KeyboardAdvantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, the results showed “…that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” [Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, doi: 10.1177/ 0956797614524581.]

Both articles provide food for thought. Anecdotal evidence from our faculty here at Johns Hopkins suggests that students are becoming less adept at taking notes by hand, and even writing by hand at all. Old-fashioned essay-style exams taken in blue books seem to provide a challenge to students who complain of hand cramps at the end of the test. Yet the learning gains may be significant. Maybe it’s time to revive an old, tried and true practice. For students (and instructors) who need some tutoring on how to take notes, here is a resource to check out: The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, by Mike Rohde [Peachpit Press, November 30, 2012.]

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC MCGunner on Imgur at http://imgur.com/N2PYK8S?tags

Tips for Regulating the Use of Mobile Devices in the Classroom

If what we are hearing in the CER is any indication, student use of laptops (and increasingly, tablets and smartphones) in the classroom for non-academic purposes has become a widespread problem at Homewood. Faculty we have talked to have done everything from banning all computer use in their classes (potentially a problem for students with disabilities) to having TAs roam the lecture hall to discourage inappropriate web surfing. Are there better solutions?

no cell phones icon

One option is to have a clear statement of policy about mobile device use in your course syllabus. This combined with a discussion of “digital etiquette” during the first class meeting can be an effective solution. Even better, consider creating a contract with your students at the beginning of the semester. The contract is a two-way street. By engaging your students in the process, you increase the likelihood of their compliance. The scope of your contract may go beyond the use of mobile devices and should include your obligations as a professor as well as your expectations of student behavior. For a more in detailed discussion of this method see the CER’s Innovative Instructor article Creating a Convenant with Your Students by JHU Professor P. M. Forni. An alternative option might be to encourage students to use their mobile devices to record class information – see  a posting by Stanford faculty member Rick Reis from his Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image source: Microsoft Clip Art