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Heard It All Before? A New Age of Lectures

Posted on Tuesday April 23, 2013 by Staff Writers


“A lecture is much more of a dialogue than many of you probably realize.” — Harvard University professor George Wald

“Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused. But on a higher level.” — University of Chicago professor Enrico Fermi

If there’s one thing you can say about universities, it’s that they love tradition. They love it so much that when a system takes root, it takes years and years to uproot it. For example, it took 700 years or so before the first coed college came into being. When it comes to the college lecture, we’re still waiting for a successor to appear.

Enter any given classroom at any given campus across the country on any given weekday, and odds are better than 50/50 that you’ll see anywhere from two to 200 young learners facing a somewhat older speaker, the former scribbling while the latter soliloquizes. But the chances are growing that you’ll encounter something else: a professor with a fresh take on the lecture, or one who has nearly abandoned it altogether. Even though some of the “new” techniques these men and women are using were first iterated as early as the 1980s or before, real change to the structure of the college classroom is finally making the slow march from the fringes to the mainstream.

Why Lectures?

The roots of lectures harken back to a time when mentioning the prospect of a machine that could mass produce books would have been branded witchcraft talk. In those medieval days beginning in the 11th century, universities were strictly the business of the Catholic Church and were thus closely tied to the development of Christian thought. The professors or magistrorum would present oral arguments applying Christian theology to the works of Aristotle. Handwritten books being rare and the professor being the only one with a copy, the students would take notes.

If that sounds more than a little familiar, it’s because the basic format for the majority of college classes hasn’t changed much. The chalkboard arose then gave way to the whiteboard, the personal slate to the digital tablet, the transparency to overhead projectors beaming bulleted PowerPoint slides. Note-taking still consumes most of students’ in-class time, and the industry that caters to them with apps, software, and tech tools to help them jot down spoken info continues humming right along.

Despite their persistence, the shortcomings of lectures are many. Students become passive receptacles, prone to boredom and mind wandering, instead of active participants in their education. Professors too can become passive readers-aloud rather than dynamic knowledge awakeners. Even the most dedicated students cannot pay attention for the entirety of a 90-minute lecture, nor can they retain everything they hear. What they do retain skews closer to rote memorization rather than critical understanding of concepts.

Nevertheless, lectures have survived for several reasons. A live, experienced instructor can word a difficult concept in multiple ways until students understand a fact, something a static textbook cannot do. It’s also a low-cost way to transmit information to large audiences. The massive freshmen and sophomore courses are frequently presented in the large lecture hall setting. Assuming there is one, the question and answer component of lectures is invaluable, providing both a feedback and assessment aspect that is an integral part of the new lecture.

Lectures in the Digital Era

Here are the high-tech tools and revolutionary methods college professors and other teachers are using to give updated lectures in the digital age.

  • Real-time feedback and assessment: Providing students the means of submitting questions, answers, or comments while a lecture is underway is one of the hottest ways to revitalize the college classroom experience. “Clickers” — simple handheld devices that allow students to wirelessly submit answers to multiple choice questions from their desks — have been in use around the country since the early 2000s and could be found in the palms of as many as half a million college students in 2010, according to The New York Times.

    With the prevalence of smartphones, some profs are finding it easier to use students’ own mobile devices for the same purpose. At the National University of Singapore, assistant professor Adrian Roellin uses software called questionSMS to poll students via text message before and after a lecture to gauge what they know coming in, what they learned, and how they felt about the lecture itself (too slow or too fast).

    Some profs are harnessing social media to ramp up the dialogue between them and their audiences. In 2009, a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas began requesting questions and comments via live Tweets during class, which she then projected on the screen at the front of the class as discussion prompts. Some teachers are taking to Google Moderator to not only take live questions from students during a lecture, but allow them to vote up those that they most want to see answered.

  • Peer instruction: One of the oldest proponents of the “new” lecture is Harvard’s Eric Mazur. One day, frustrated over his inability to get his students to understand a point, the physics professor offered to let them discuss it with each other. In three minutes, they had it figured out. Thus was born what Mazur calls his “guide on the side” teaching style that he’s been promoting and practicing since the release of his 1997 book, Peer Instruction.

    Today Mazur has effectively ditched the lecture, speaking at the front of the class only “a few minutes” to introduce a student-raised subject and polling the students for an answer. Mazur told us he uses assessment software called Learning Catalytics to compile the answers, which allows students to respond via laptop, smartphone, or tablet. If there is not a clear consensus on the question, Mazur turns things over to the students, who are charged with finding a classmate with a differing opinion and arguing their case.

    Because his is the only Physics 11 section at Harvard, comparison with similar classes is not possible. But Mazur told us exam performance increased significantly as a result of his introducing peer instruction. More importantly, students’ understanding of concepts improved, instead of their ability to pass tests with the “bag of tricks” they had picked up. Mazur says on the Force Concept Inventory — an assessment test for Newtonian physics — the normalize gain for his students tripled after he switched to peer instruction.

  • Restructured setting: Any effort to shift the focus of a class away from the lecture should really begin by adjusting the environment; you can’t very well expect anything other than a lecture in a lecture hall. For the University of Minnesota’s Rochester campus, officials opted to ditchthose halls entirely.

    Rooms don’t have fronts. Instead they have wheeled furniture so students can collaborate in small groups. The notes they jot on their dry erase boards can be easily photographed by cameras hanging from the ceiling and saved to a laptop for future reference. The class is flipped, meaning students are expected to come to class having read the material already, because any lecture they will get will be brief. Perhaps most important of all, the school has changed the teaching environment by making learning research a requirement for promotion and tenure.

How to Keep Your Lectures Alive

Whether you choose to make use of high tech or keep it old school, let these suggestions for remixing your lectures guide you.

  • Make it relevant to students: Even preachers today recognize that effectively getting your message across means connecting with your audience “where they’re at.” Paradise Valley Community College creative writing professor Lois Roma-Deeley uses this technique to make 449-year-old Shakespeare relatable to 21-year-old college students. When teaching Sonnet 116, Roma-Deeley tells them to picture the setting as two guys having a beer in a bar at 2 a.m. in the hopes of tying their imaginations to the course content.

    It’s not just the content that needs to be relevant to 19- and 20-year-olds but the medium. An estimated 90% of college students will own smartphones by 2016, and of those who already own them, 92% are using them during class (partly because they’re bored and partly because they’re literally addicted).

    Instead of fighting them by taking points off their final grade for using iDevices in class, find ways to integrate them into the lecture. At Howard University, English professor Ada Vilageliu-Diaz invites students to call up online books on their smartphones. At Harvard, Mazur has his students submit the answers to their mini-quizzes via smartphone.

  • Keep it brief and quiz often: A recent study out of Harvard University about curtailing mind wandering in online students could have much light to shed on the issue of keeping students in brick-and-mortar classrooms engaged. Cognitive psychologists found that students who watched a 21-minute video lecture and were tested at the end of each five-minute break took more notes, reported daydreaming less, and did better on the final than students who took breaks with no test.

    Postdoctoral fellow Karl Szpunar led the research. We asked him if he thought these results would apply in a face-to-face lecture class. He told us he suspected the results would be similar, if not even more pronounced.

    “In the classroom, students are often surrounded by familiar classmates, their laptops, smart phones, and so on,” said Szpunar. “Basically, there are more possibilities for distractions to pull their attention away from the lecture.”

    Szpunar added that it’s also important to note that tests may not necessarily be the only or even best way to keep students engaged. He offered as an example the possibility of students generating questions about lecture content that would subsequently be graded by the lecturer. “Whatever the task, I think that an evaluative component will be important in giving the students incentive to pay attention,” he said.

  • Give them something to look at: There’s a reason infographics have become so popular: people appreciate having boring text presented in a way that’s visually stimulating and memorable. In fact, they more than appreciate it; they need it that way, as 65% of the population are visual learners. By definition, the lecture is an auditory experience, so a professor who wants to give a well-rounded lecture needs to incorporate plenty of visual elements.

    Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation offers a great rundown of information visualization tools that can help you spice up the driest of data deliveries. Gapminder.com, for instance, can take info from the World Bank on agricultural land as a percentage of land area by country and turn it into a vivid, interactive work of modern art.

    At Harvard, professor of music Thomas Forrest Kelly has traded in textbooks for multimedia in his lectures on The Rite of Spring in his Literature and the Arts course. He plays for the students recordings of composer Igor Stravinsky ruminating on the 1913 premier performance, shows them paintings and photographs of the man, the dancers, the conductor, the score and costumes, and the play’s set. He even uses a laser pointer to guide his pupils through the score.

    Before he made the jump to online courses, well-known UCLA biology professor Bob Goldberg was “very skeptical” of the new medium’s ability to provide high-caliber instruction. But when he learned that the format would allow him the ability to demonstrate concepts with hand-drawn illustrations, filmed experiments, and two-way video and audio correspondence with his students, he was won over completely.

Even with developments like massive online courses, the lecture continues to be the agreed-upon instrument for delivering information to learners. Come robot instructors or hologram video tutorials, there will never be a replacement for a brilliant lecture from a fun, passionate, energetic teacher. Make that your ideal, professors, and supplement with peer instruction or dazzling audio and video displays, and you’ll be set for another thousand years.