While the traditional lecture still holds a respected place in academia, more and more often it is being supplanted by the collaborative classroom.
By Patrick S. Broadwater • Illustrations by Tim Bradford
At 11 o’clock on a Friday morning in October, Mike Prince walks into Room 132 of Bucknell’s Dana Engineering Building and begins to speak. The class is Fundamentals of Heat and Mass Transfer and, befitting the technical scope of the subject, the classroom is practically a blank slate: unadorned white walls, a bland carpet of indistinguishable color, and tiers of black work tables dotted with desktop computers serving as desks for the two dozen students in class. A large whiteboard stretches across the front of the room and pull-down screens hang from either end of the ceiling bracketing a pair of opposite-facing projectors. The students are arranged in clusters around the room, three or four per group. Prince speaks to a group of students, while others sit with their backs to him or with their nose buried in the bluish glow of a laptop screen.
Outside, it’s peak foliage-viewing season. To the east, across the Susquehanna River, a layer of fog lingers over the valley, providing a natural filter that mutes the beauty of the dying leaves. No one seems to notice. There is no time. Back inside, Prince has wrapped up his talk. But class is not over. The end of his monologue merely signifies that the learning is about to begin. He starts to circulate around the room to find out if anyone has any questions. It’s now 11:03 a.m.
Coleman 252 more closely resembles a high-school classroom than a lecture hall or lab. The combination chair-desks are aligned neatly in rows facing a large green chalkboard and lectern in the front of the room. Ned Searles and Helen Morris-Keitel sit two rows apart. Like everyone else in this class — Communicating Across Cultures — they sit and listen to the team of presenters, follow the discussion as it ping-pongs around the room and occasionally interject when they have an experience they would like to share with the group. At the end of the 52-minute class, they linger for a few extra seconds to chat with students before they head out to teach their next class.
You never know where you will find college professors these days. But less and less often, you’ll find them engaged in a one-way conversation from the head of the classroom. At Bucknell and many other colleges and universities across the country, the lecture-style format, long adhered to as the standard for post-secondary instruction, is being replaced by active learning methods where students are doing something more than sitting there passively listening to the instructor and taking notes.
“The ‘trust me’ days of higher education are disappearing,” says Prince, a professor of chemical engineering who has gained international recognition for his research in engineering education. “The belief that if I send my kid to a pretty campus and spend lots of money then they’re going to learn lots of things — I think those days are going, if not gone. All of us are being pushed to justify what we’re doing and to validate that what we’re doing in higher education really does lead to some significant learning.”
For hundreds — if not thousands — of years, it was believed that the lecture was the best method for transferring knowledge from one to many. Before the invention of the printing press, books were hard to come by, so someone who had access to original source material would read the text (and perhaps his thoughts on it) aloud to others who could write down the information for their own use. This was the basic format used in the earliest medieval universities and remained the predominant method of teaching well into the 20th century.
One of the main reasons why the form endured is because it worked pretty well.
“Somehow, folks who sat through ‘useless’ lectures went on to eradicate smallpox and put rovers on Mars,” says Kevin Myers, associate professor of psychology. “Yes, the human brain evolved to learn actively, but let’s remember that the spoken word and narrative storytelling have always been indispensable modes for transmitting culture.”
Geoff Schneider, director of Bucknell’s Teaching and Learning Center, which was founded in 2006 to support and build on the University’s commitment to excellence in teaching, agrees that the lecture still has a place in academia. “We can present material with a depth of knowledge and background that students would not get in an active-learning environment. We can demonstrate the kinds of thinking that are really sophisticated. There’s a purpose to the traditional lecture, and we want them to get that.”
But, what Schneider, Prince and others have found is that as effective as lecturing can be, it’s no match for active learning.
“The research is just unequivocal,” Schneider says. “Active, student-centered learning is much more effective, literally many times better. Part of the reason we’re academics is that we do research and we believe in the research process. When we are confronted with research that shows that the lecture is an inefficient method of learning, relative to more active methods, it really does give you pause, and you start to rethink what you do.”
Fundamentals of Heat and Mass Transfer is a required course for third-year chemical engineering students. Although he estimates that he may lecture as much as 90 percent in a given class period, Prince does not even remotely approach that figure on this day. He earlier assigned the groups a set of three open-ended problems with more than one possible solution. Students will use this class period to work on them.
Prince is there as a resource. He makes his rounds, checking in with each group. His main task for the day is to find out where groups are stuck and provide the knowledge to get them unstuck.
“Good morning, gentlemen. Can I help you with anything?”
“How are you doing? All set? Just need some time to work on it? I’ll leave you alone then.”
Within a few minutes, Kunga Dagpo ’14 stops Prince and asks him to check his work. While Dagpo writes in his notebook, Prince notes, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
Prince returns to Dagpo’s group about 10 minutes later, and a longer discussion ensues with Dagpo, another student scribbling notes and Andy Hritz ’14, who is standing over them leafing through a textbook.
“We found what we need to know,” Hritz says. “We were pretty much asking, ‘Can you define variables for us?’ or, ‘Can you tell us how this equation works?’ because he actually hasn’t told us that.”
The lack of revealing pieces of key information is most definitely by design. Prince uses a technique called problem-based learning, a form of active learning that provides students with constant feedback on their progress and hands-on practice using the skills they need to solve a problem.
“It starts with the open-ended problem that the course is designed to teach you how to solve and uses that problem to drive everything that happens in that course,” Prince says.
So, on the first day of class, Prince asked the class to design a heating and cooling system for the classroom, even though the students weren’t yet equipped to solve that problem.
“They don’t even really know what heat is. But over the next few weeks, they figure out what they need to know. And as they discover what it is that they need to know, it’s my job to help them learn.”
In essence, it’s self-discovery with an expert guide waiting in the wings. Research strongly suggests that active learning methods such as this are more effective and lead to a deeper understanding of concepts. Students retain only a small amount (on average five to 15 percent) of the information presented in a lecture, while more experiential methods, such as hands-on practice, boost that rate to well over 50 percent.
“One of my research areas is assessing and correcting student misconceptions. I have data that show that on average my students learn important and difficult concepts four to five times better than a broad sample of students in traditional programs,” Prince says. “The literature is very consistent. In general, active learning is more effective for pretty much every learning outcome you would ever care about.
“I’m interested in them becoming self-directed learners. I don’t know where they’re going when they leave Bucknell, but I know I’m not going with them. So they have to be able to learn on their own.”
That ambition is not lost on the students.
“When I actually do it, I learn better that way,” Dagpo says. “I feel more comfortable in this type of setting. It’s more problem-based, which will help me more after I graduate.”
“I think what Professor Prince is trying to get at is that this is the way it works once you’re out of the classroom,” Hritz says. “People aren’t going to lecture you. People aren’t going to give you everything. They’re going to give you a problem. They might give you some background, but you’re going to have to either ask them or find the information on your own to solve it.”
Active learning can take many forms, and the Communicating Across Cultures class, one of Bucknell’s new team-teaching courses, is just another example. Taught by Morris-Keitel, an associate professor of German, and Searles, an associate professor of anthropology, this course uses student presentations, role-playing and freewheeling discussions to create a peer-to-peer learning environment. By talking about their own experiences, students can learn from one another about what types of things influence others and can better understand how behaviors are shaped by those experiences.
The key is creating a safe atmosphere. Searles and Morris-Keitel facilitated an engaging and encouraging environment from the beginning. At first, they led most of the discussions and guided the class to the point where students could freely exchange ideas and learn from others in a very personal way. By midway through the semester, the line dividing professors and students had blurred a bit — at least during class discussions — to where everyone’s participation contributed to the group’s greater understanding of the subject.
On this particular day, Morris-Keitel and Searles delivered a few housekeeping remarks at the top of the class. They then handed the class over to a trio of students who covered the highlights of an assigned reading and then began firing questions at the group. What started out as an exercise in what we think about when we travel, slowly morphed, with only minimal faculty input, into a fascinating meditation on liminality (the state of being neither here nor there) and whether travel is an opportunity for us to escape our true selves or whether it reveals them to us.
Aside from the teaching methods used, the class differs from tradition in another way: its multidisciplinary approach. Integrated Perspectives courses like this examine some of the big issues confronting modern society through at least two different lenses and encapsulate the liberal arts ideal that knowledge doesn’t belong to a single academic discipline.
“What we are trying to get them to see is that there is a dialogue between the disciplines, or that there can be,” Morris-Keitel says. “We’re not going to get them to the final level of total integration of the two perspectives we bring, but if we can bring them steps closer to realizing that there are possible connections between them, our hope is that then they’ll do that between more of their courses and throughout their careers.”
“One of the funny things about the academy is that you have disciplines and they are trained to drill down and get very specific,” Schneider says. “But the real world often involves complex problems that are not really suitable to one narrow view. So we have designed teaching environments to get our students to wrestle with bigger picture things that involve multiple disciplines. The idea is to get students — instead of focusing narrowly and learning depth in one area — to really think about broader issues and how to integrate their knowledge.”
The skills that they’re learning in the process — verbal communication, teamwork, problem-solving — clearly have vocational value, as well. They match up strongly with the desires of today’s hiring managers.
“These are all attributes that we are cultivating directly in this sort of active, collaborative classroom environment,” Schneider says. “We are giving our students real-life skills in this process by having them work together actively in the classroom.”
In his famed speech at the 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, Sir Ken Robinson, a renowned author and leader in education and innovation, pondered the unpredictability of the world as it applies to education. Children who started school in 2006 will retire sometime around 2065. Robinson contends that the best way to prepare today’s students for the unknown challenges they will face in the next four to five decades is by fostering creativity in them. “Creativity is as important as literacy,” he says. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Creativity, what he calls the process of having original ideas that have value, can only come about from the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.
“That’s why I think the liberal arts model is relatively secure, because we can do things that other places don’t. And we’re getting, I think, even more creative,” Schneider says. “I would say that everybody lectures some, and some people lecture almost all the time, and they’re very good at that. So, we still have some very traditional college classes. But we also have some classes that are completely flipped, in which the students really are at the center of every classroom every day. It’s really an interesting time.”
Prince’s Heat and Mass Transfer class is an example of a flipped classroom — where the instructor, in effect, works backwards. Class time is not used to introduce material; it’s used to get students to understand it better.
“They don’t need me for the first exposure to the information. They can read the textbook for that,” Prince says. “What they need me for is to help them understand that information better so they can figure out how to use it to solve real problems. That’s harder.”
Does that mean the lecture is dead? Not by a long shot. But it may take place on a different platform or be best served as a component of the new classroom paradigm rather than the lone or predominant method. Lectures remain vital for breadth and depth, specialization and inspiration. But technological advances can make a lecture on most any topic available on demand in the span of a few keystrokes or tablet swipes, leaving class time to be used for more engaging, higher-yielding experiential activities.
“One of the cool things about the online prospect is you can be interfacing with an alum from London or an expert from South Africa,” says Schneider. “What’s interesting is that we can actually use these technologies to make it more of a liberal arts setting — more of that close faculty-student interaction, where we’re in the classroom working together on problems and we can give them the individual attention that is necessary to promote really deep understanding of things.”
“Especially in the residential learning environment like Bucknell, the possibilities are exciting, because technology will enable even more blurring of the distinction between in- and out-of-class time. For instance, the flipped class model might become the norm,” Myers says.
“There are things lecturing does really well, and most of it has to do with helping students see what expertise looks like and fostering an enthusiasm for expertise as something to aspire to. There are always going to be different combinations that are better suited to different types of course material. I think we’ll usually do best by looking for hybrid approaches, asking which combination of methods best serves the course goals. This will mean there will be parts, even big parts, of some courses where lecturing makes sense, and then I’d encourage integrating active methods to make it an engaging lecture.
“Call it Lecture 2.0.”
Among the changes brought by technology is expanded access to massive open online courses (MOOCs) sponsored by large research universities. Bucknell President John Bravman recently appointed an Integrating Open Educational Resources and Residential Learning task force, chaired by Schneider and Vice President for Library and Information Technology Param Bedi, to examine how these offerings may affect the University.
In the meantime, Bucknell professors continue to find new and exciting ways to get students to own the subject matter in ways that last far beyond a paper or the next exam. For Schneider, who still teaches at least one economics course each semester, the shift in how he approaches class means spending less time thinking about what he is going to do on a given day, and more on what his students are going to experience. “In essence, what we’re doing a lot of the time now is facilitating peer teaching, where students are trying to put in their own words and make the connections themselves. That’s where the deepest learning takes place and that’s what’s going to stick with them after they leave here,” he says.
“I find that idea incredibly powerful.”
Patrick S. Broadwater is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, N.Y.