Listen to the ‘sage of the stage’

College lectures are under attack by advocates of “active learning,” writes Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina history professor.  There’s nothing new about that. “The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves,” warned Charles Eliot in his 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard.

However, “in the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections,” Worthen argues. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”

Learning to pay attention is a “crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize,” she argues.

A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.

This is difficult for many students — and perhaps more difficult for first-generation, black and Latino students, recent research suggests.

In a 2014 study, science and math scores improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods such as group work and student-led discussion. “It’s almost unethical to be lecturing,”  said Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist.

“Humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time,” responds Worthen. If “active learning” works best in science classes, that’s fine. The humanities still has a place for the “sage on the stage.”

Structure, quizzes improve lectures

Are College Lectures Unfair? asks Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times. I think would be more useful to ask whether college lectures are less effective than they could be — for everyone.

“Active learning” — such as adding quizzes, questions about the reading and in-class exercises to lectures — improves achievement for all students, research has found.  “Women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families,” writes Paul.

An introductory biology course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was taught in a low-structure lecture format and a moderate-structure format that included  “ungraded guided-reading questions and in-class active-learning exercises in addition to the graded online assignments,” she writes.

In the structured course, students were more likely to complete the readings and spent more time studying. Students earned higher grades than those in the traditional lecture course. The active-learning approach worked especially well for black and first-generation students.

At the University of Texas at Austin, psychology professors added a low-stakes quiz at the start of each class. Quizzed students attended class more often and achieved higher test scores. “The intervention also reduced by 50 percent the achievement gap between more affluent and less affluent students,” writes Paul.

“Active-learning courses regularly provide opportunities for students to talk and debate with one another in a collaborative, low-pressure environment,” writes Paul. That especially helps students who may be reluctant to speak up, such as women in math and science courses, minority students and first-generation students.

These days, many students who show up at a lecture are checking social media and surfing. Others will watch the lecture online. Unless they never get around to it. Redesigning lecture courses is a survival thing for professors, not just a way to help less-advantaged students.

Is traditional instruction that boring?

I have been puzzling over the op-ed “Plato’s War on Play” by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. (The op-ed is behind a paywall in The Chronicle of Higher Education.) Carnes argues that philosophers and educators from Plato onward have distinguished between the “good play” that is appropriate for the classroom and “bad play” that must be kept outside its bounds. In doing so, they have denied themselves a powerful classroom motivator; harnessing “bad play” for academic purposes can do wonders, as the role-playing game Reacting to the Past suggests.

Role-play may indeed motivate students. But why assume that “traditional” instruction cannot do the same? Why assume, moreover, that slower and quieter kinds of engagement lack value?

Carnes writes:

But during the past decade, some faculty members and administrators have discovered that the motivational power of “bad play” can be harnessed to academic purposes. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the phenomenon is the spread of Reacting to the Past, a pedagogical system I helped start, in which students play monthlong games, set in the past, with roles informed by classic texts. For the game set in Athens in 403 BC, for example, students become democrats or oligarchs, and compete by debating the respective merits of Pericles and Plato; for the game set in the Holy Office in Rome in 1632, students pretend to be mathematicians, natural philosophers, and conservative cardinals, and debate whether Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems proves that the Earth moves. During the past decade, Reacting—the epitome of Platonic bad play—has spread to more than 350 campuses.

All well and good–but underlying this movement is an assumption that lectures, discussions, seminars, presentations, etc., are not interesting for students. In a reply to my comment (on a different matter pertaining to the piece), the author writes:

I didn’t mean to suggest that Plato was the originator of the concept of “bad play”. I argue that he was an influential proponent of the idea that competitive role-playing is bad form of play, seductive and dangerously powerful, which must be suppressed. And so it is that the chief proponents of educational play–from Plato to Piaget, and from Rousseau to Dewey–have denounced role-playing games. Which explains why professors embrace “good play”–a lively seminar discussion, a witty lecturer. The problem is that often our “playful” seminars and lectures aren’t all that much fun–for students or for us.

Two questions: Is it true that seminars and lectures–playful or not–aren’t all that much fun? Must they always be fun?

I hear the frequent mantra that the “old” methods no longer engage students and that new ones are needed. I find this strange. I attended my first lectures–about the Moon–at age eleven, and found them captivating; since then, I have almost always enjoyed lectures and seminars for the substance and exchange. In fact, I appreciate classes that give me room to think, where I don’t have to jump in immediately and do or make something. There’s fun in this–but it’s fun that doesn’t always have to be fun. Am I an outlier? Is the world at large clamoring for more “bad” fun? If so, should educators meet the demand, or should they push back a bit?

I am not against role-play as one of many instructional formats. I have used it at times. But month after month of it could get dreary. Even actors could find role-play limiting, since it both is and isn’t acting. I question the widespread assumption that traditional education (with all its variety and permeability) has failed us so deeply and badly that we must embrace something new.

Active learning helps first-gen students

A Biology 1 class that required active learning — as opposed to listening to lectures — raised test scores, especially for first-generation and black students, according to a new University of North Carolina study. Students reported working harder and participating more.

Daily tests cut achievement gap

Daily online testing raised college students’ performance in a University of Texas experiment.  The achievement gap between lower- and upper-middle class students narrowed by 50 percent in a large lecture class. Tested students didn’t just earn higher grades in Psychology 101. They “performed better in other classes, both in the semester they took the course and in subsequent semester classes.”

Testing teaches self-regulation, say Professors James Pennebaker and Samuel Gosling, who co-teach Psych 101.

One important self-regulatory method to improve preparation and performance is to give students frequent testing along with rapid, targeted, and structured feedback on their performance, so that they can adjust their learning and studying strategies in time to improve their performance in a course. Recent research has demonstrated that the mere act of testing helps students to remember and retrieve information more efficiently.

Each class day, students answered seven questions given to everyone and one personalized question, usually one they’d gotten wrong on a previous test, reports the New York Times.  They got the results immediately.

Most students hated it at first, Dr. Pennebaker said. Course evaluations “were the lowest ever.”

By the end of the course, however, the class had outperformed a previous Psych 301 class of 935 students that used midterm exams — scoring 10 percent higher on a subset of 17 questions that appeared on both classes’ tests. The quizzed group also got slightly higher grades, the study found.

The grade improvements were sharpest among students from lower-income backgrounds — those from poor-quality schools “who were always smartest in class,” Dr. Gosling said.

“Then they get here and, when they fail the first midterm, they think it’s a fluke,” he went on. “By the time they’ve failed the second one, it’s too late. The hole’s too deep. The quizzes make it impossible to maintain that state of denial.”

Students had to do the reading and pay attention in class to pass the quizzes. They also had to show up. Attendance usually drops to 60 percent by mid-semester, Dr. Pennebaker said. “In this quiz class it was 90 percent.”

From campfire to holodeck

Educational futurist David Thornburg calls for redesigning classrooms in his new book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck. Learning environments should provide Campfire spaces (one person lectures), Watering Holes (classmates converse), Caves (for quiet reflection) and Life (places where students apply what they’ve learned).

Thornburg created an “educational holodeck,” inspired by Star Trek’s simulation space, he tells The Atlantic.

. . . we’ve taken a good-sized room and covered the surfaces, no external light coming in, and in the front of the room put a large projection screen. . . .  On the side of the room, there was an interactive whiteboard and around the periphery, personal computers. Kids come into the room to go on a mission.

One that we did was a mission to Mars, to let kids explore whether Mars has or had, life. There are challenges when you’re taking off in a spaceship, and they have to solve problems. It’s very interesting, because it’s an immensely interactive environment, and after a little while they almost feel like they’re there.

A year after their holodeck mission, students knew “much more” about Mars than they had at mission’s end, says Thornburg. “They were so interested in it that they continued to study the topic on their own.”

In a painting of a classroom from 1350, “students are talking to each other or falling asleep while the teacher drones on,” Thornburg says. (But none are checking their smart phones!) Why do teachers still lecture?

Henry of Germany delivers a lecture to university students in 14th-century Bologna

Teachers often use technology to do the same old things, Thornburg says. Interactive whiteboards often are used “to replicate the full-frontal model of teaching by having a big board in front of the room that the teacher uses.”

E-books have advantages, but they also let people say, “Well, to change my teaching, I’m using new technology. For example, our kids have e-textbooks.”

You’re still doing the same old thing. Maybe we should be doing other things with these tablets and other technologies. You can create your own movies, write programs and applications, things like that. That’s taking new tools and using them in powerful new ways.

Good classroom design makes sense. But every teacher can’t be holodeck designer, writer, movie maker and programmer . . . It’s too much.

Ann Althouse thinks flipping the classroom is for teachers who think their students can’t or won’t read.

E-texts will read students

In a year or so, when students read e-textbooks, the books may be reading students’ “engagement” and study habits.

Community college instructors are “flipping” — putting lectures online to use class time for discussion, coaching and collaboration.

Why we flipped chemistry class

Flipped Classrooms Are Here to Stay write two teachers who flipped chemistry classes at their Colorado high school. Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams recorded lectures and told students to watch the videos as homework.

Our students were on a block schedule, meaning they had 95 minutes of class time every other day. Every other night our students watched one of our videos—either online, from a flash drive, or on DVD—as homework and took notes on what they learned. We conducted laboratory experiments during class just like we had always done, but instead of rushing through the lecture and setup to get to the actual hands-on work, we were able to use the entire period to conduct in-depth scientific experiments.

“Flipped” students earn higher scores on tests, they write.  Teachers can give more attention to struggling students in class. At home, “students can watch the instructional videos as many times as they need to, pausing and rewinding to take notes or read Powerpoint slides at their own pace.”

 As flipped teachers, we spend our class time answering questions, monitoring experiments, probing deeper into the content, and guiding the learning of each student individually.

Sorry, that story is subscribers’ only on Ed Week Teacher. Here’s another version that’s open to all.  Bergmann and Sams are the authors of Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.

I wonder: Would flipping work as well in other kinds of classes? If students won’t read the textbook, will they watch an instructional video?

Flip and feedback

“Flipping” lectures and homework is being tested at some schools, reports Ed Week.

In a Khan Academy pilot in suburban Los Altos, California (where I live), students in grades 5-8 watch Khan’s online math lessons at home and do exercises. Teachers can track students’ video watching and see how long each student takes to correctly solve 10 problems in a row for each math concept.

That’s not really a homework flip, since students do exercises at home, but it helps teachers quickly see where students are getting confused.

At Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Georgia, John Willis requires physics students to view recorded lectures and other materials online, then uses short quizzes to make sure they follow through. He uses class time for demonstrations and experiments. Other teachers have followed his lead to save instructional time.

 Mr. Willis said that what used to be a two-class-period process to set the groundwork for a laboratory assignment has been moved online—mostly with student-made videos explaining the setup procedures and hypothesis planning.

“It allows me to improve the connections I’m making with students, because now I can get into the material in a deeper way,” Mr. Willis said.

For a recent experiment using microscopes, Dr.(Susan) Kramer and another biology teacher posted YouTube videos of scientists discussing the equipment, photos of the school’s microscopes for the students to label, and their own videos explaining common problems in setting up the experiment.

“When [the students] came in, that shaved a half hour off what we would have normally had to eat up in lab,” she said. “So at a time when we’re trying to cram more into less, they’re already coming in prepared and ready to go and that saved us a lot.”

Flipping requires students to do more work on their own. It also requires all students to have access to computers. Los Altos and Gwinnett loan out laptops when necessary. (I’d bet the average Los Altos family owns 2.5 computers.)


The canon lives — in adult courses

“The canon of great literature, philosophy, and art is thriving — in the marketplace, if not on college campuses, writes Heather Mac Donald in City Journal.

The Great Courses (previously The Teaching Company) is turning a profit “selling recorded lectures in the humanities and sciences to an adult audience eager to brush up its Shakespeare and its quantum mechanics.”

Back when I was commuting to work, I listened to the history of western thought series on tape. One of their economics lecturers, Tim Taylor, is an old friend and former San Jose Mercury News colleague. Yes, back when newspapers made money, we had an editorial writer who understood economics — and math.