Teaching more by lecturing less

An article in Cell Biology Education by Jennifer Knight and William Wood describes an experiment in which an upper-level biology course was taught in two ways: a traditional lecture format, and in a more interactive format that focused on cooperative problem solving during class time and asked students to learn content outside of class time. The researchers compared the learning gains in the two sections and found that the flipped-classroom model with cooperative problem solving in class resulted in greater conceptual understanding.

It is reasonably widely accepted that lecturing is not the most effective use of class time, and that students often don’t really understand material when they walk out of the lecture hall. Inquiry-based problem solving activities appear to be more useful in helping students to actually understand the material, but these types of activities can be difficult to implement in large classrooms. Faculty need evidence hat the benefits of such a radical transformation outweigh the considerable effort of implementing them.

The traditional lecture format course served as the control in this study and did not involve any cooperative, in-class interactive elements. The instructors posed questions to the class occasionally but there was no further discussion. Homework problems were assigned and worth 20% of the course grade. In the more interactive format course, the instructor still lectured 60-70% of the time – as opposed to a completely “flipped” model where this would be reduced significantly – but included clicker questions, small-group discussions and cooperative work on the “homework problems” during class time.

The fact that students demonstrated greater learning gains (pre-test vs. post-test scores) in the interactive format is not terribly surprising to me (and probably not to the researchers). However, what is surprising to me about this study is that the changes to class format were relatively minor, and still produced these improvements. The instructors didn’t completely eliminate lectures in favour of online content, or have to devise elaborate in-class inquiry activities – they just added some clicker questions and emphasized cooperative learning over competitive, individual study. This gives me hope that transformation of my classes doesn’t have to happen overnight – that incremental changes such as those described here can still improve my students’ learning. I would like to move to a more flipped model over time, but I’ve always been daunted by the amount of work involved in getting everything ready for students to view online and inventing activities for class time.  I would love to see a comparison of a fully flipped model to the interactive-lecture model described in this study to help me decide whether the more drastic change is worth the effort.

Knight, J.K., & Wood, W.B. (2005). Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biology Education, 4, 298-310.


The Flipped Classroom Field Guide

I think I’m going to take the plunge and try out a flipped classroom model this coming term (aaahhh!) and so I’ve been looking for some ideas on what I can actually do during my class time. It seems so daunting to fill 8 hours a week with active learning – but how great if I can actually manage that! The Flipped Classroom Field Guide is a PDF of best practices and resources that I’ve found to be quite helpful for getting started. Wish me luck!

Educational podcasts from elite universities

Open Education Database has a great list of 100 podcasts on various subjects from big universities such as MIT, Yale, and Harvard. The formats vary – audio-only vs video, recorded lectures vs. specially produced podcasts – but all offer free educational content to anyone who wants to listen. I can see these being used in flipped classrooms, as supplementary material for students who might want to see/hear the information another way, or for online learning. I’m going to check out some of the MIT introductory biology lectures just to see how the professor handles topics that I, um, don’t love lecturing on (*cough* biochemistry).

25 RSS Feeds for educators

Twitter can be a great tool for those of us who would like to keep up on what’s happening in educational technology, but the amount of information (including lots of fun and distracting stuff) can get a little overwhelming. RSS feeds are a great way to get tailored articles, and Fractus Learning has a great list of 25 RSS feeds for Educators. Some are focused more on K-12 learning than adult education, but many of them are focused on educational technology that can be used at any level. Check it out!

Professors Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Wiley: big publishers producing online courses

A recent article on Slate.com by Gabriel Kahn reports that major textbook publishers are now producing online courses at the introductory level across various subjects. These courses include the extensive materials that are already bundled with many textbooks, such as videos, quizzes and activities, and can be run without much additional input from an instructor. Some of the courses include essays that are submitted online and graded automatically. The courses are offered through colleges and universities, but they essentially the same course no matter which institution is giving the student credit.

Proponents of the courses say that the lower cost of delivering them, as compared with a traditional course that involves many hours of an instructor’s time to prepare, deliver and mark, is a major benefit. The materials produced by textbook companies has a higher production value than what any individual instructor would be able to put together on his or her own. First-year courses are already somewhat standardized across institutions, especially in disciplines where one textbook is used by a majority of universities. Given that many professors (particularly at research-focused universities) would prefer to teach upper-level courses, offloading introductory courses onto the textbook companies rather than onto sessional lecturers may make university administrators happy as well.

I think that for instructors, these textbook-company courses should serve as a real wake-up call. While I am in favour of a flipped classroom model, perhaps using some of the textbook company’s videos and quizzes, anyone whose course could be replaced by software should be taking a long, hard look at their teaching methods. I believe that my job is not just to deliver content and assess students’ memorization of said content (and I agree that software could probably do those tasks), but also to personalize the content for my each group of students, inspire excitement about the subject matter, encourage and advise students, model a scientific way of thinking, and provide meaningful feedback on students’ progress. Maybe looking at what the textbook companies are offering in terms of online courses should give us a push toward focusing on those things that only real instructors can provide, and away from standing at the front of the room (or sitting in front of a webcam) delivering a speech.

Lessons worth sharing

Many of us use TED talks to supplement our lessons, but did you know that there’s a TED site just for teachers? Ed.ted.com allows users to build lessons around educational videos from TED and other sources, and add discussion topics or questions. TED ed content comes from educators who submit videos of under-10-minute lessons for consideration; those that are chosen get made into animations and shared on the site.

How cool would it be to have one of your lessons made into a professional animation and shared with students around the world? Anyone else tempted to polish up your best work and submit it?

What we can learn from MOOCs

Daphne Koller’s TED talk describes the free, huge online courses offered by elite universities, and what educators can learn from the successes and shortcomings of these courses. The best elements of these courses include their customizable nature, the active learning that comes from in-lecture quizzes, and the ability to break material up into short segments of 8-12 minutes that are better matched to attention spans than the traditional 50-minute lecture. These are all elements that face-to-face educators can incorporate to make our classes more effective.  She also presents data suggesting that self-grading and peer-grading of assignments may be an effective solution to the problem of instructor workload in large (or huge!) classes as well as being assessment for learning- something to consider for face-to-face instructors too.