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.

Getting students to prepare for class

The “flipped classroom” model depends on students coming to class prepared – usually having watched an online lecture, but perhaps using other materials to get the equivalent of a lecture. In-class time can then be used for more interactive, “brains-on” and hands-on activities. Even in a more traditional model, students who have done the reading ahead of time will be better able to follow the lecture and participate in class. But getting students motivated to read is hard! The textbook is long, heavy and boring, and you’re going to cover the material in class anyway (maybe) – so why bother? One possibility is to get students to use other materials – videos or podcasts – to prepare – but the issue of motivating students to actually do the preparation exists no matter what media you use.

Cynthia Heiner, Amanda Banet and Carl Wieman published a paper discussing the use of pre-reading assignments and online quizzes in physics and biology classes. Students typically consider reading the textbook to be a relatively low-priority activity because they don’t think it will help their grade; one method to encourage reading is to administer a quiz that is directly related to the reading. An online quiz can be given with a deadline shortly before class starts; results of this quiz can help the instructor to figure out what concepts students find difficult, so that he or she can focus more on these concepts in class. However, even with a graded quiz, previous studies have found that the majority of students don’t read the textbook. Heiner et al. (2014) aimed to help students to see the value of doing the reading by creating a more targeted reading and quiz, rather than just asking students to read whole chapters of the textbook. This practice involves making sure that the reading is very closely linked to the material to be discussed in class, and that the quiz refers to specific page numbers and figures in the textbook – drawing students’ attention to the most important parts of the reading. At the end of the study, students reported that they found the pre-reading assignments helpful for their learning, and there was a correlation between how many of the assignments they completed and their performance on the final exam.

Heiner et al. (2014) suggest some best practices for pre-reading assignments:

  1. Keep the reading focused on what you plan to discuss in class
  2. Explain the purpose of pre-readings and how these benefit students
  3. Provide questions that students should think about while reading
  4. Omit unnecessary material
  5. Give a graded online quiz that is due before class; the quiz should be easy for students who have done the reading, and hard for students who have not.
  6. In class, refer to concepts from the pre-reading but do not re-teach them, or students will learn that they don’t really need to do the pre-reading.

I give a pre-reading quiz every class (in person, although I am increasingly tempted to move it online) and also find that it isn’t sufficient to motivate most students to actually do the reading. I normally assign the whole chapter, or large sections of it, so this article has motivated me to go through and select specific sections that are useful. I think that the biggest challenge for me will be to not re-teach concepts from the pre-reading, but I will try it out next term in my Biology 12 class and see how it goes.

Heiner, C.E., Banet, A.I., & Wieman, C. (2014). Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. American Journal of Physics, 82 (10), 989-996.

Clickers in small classes

Michelle Smith, Caleb Trujillo and Tin Tin Su published an article in CBE – Life Sciences Education in 2011 discussing the use of clickers in small (25-student) biology courses. Clickers are in relatively common use in large lecture hall courses at UBC, where I started my teaching career, and at other institutions – but not everyone is convinced of their usefulness in smaller classes.

In the Smith et al. (2011) study, students in an upper-division seminar course in Embryology were given two types of clicker questions: multiple-choice, fact-based quiz questions based on the pre-reading, and questions that asked the students to apply their knowledge following a presentation. The pre-reading quiz questions were done without discussion, and the post-presentation questions were answered individually first, then discussed with peers, then answered again. The researchers then interviewed students to get their reactions. Students commented that the questions motivated them to do the reading, pay attention in class (the questions were distributed throughout the lecture), think through the questions being asked rather than waiting for the most outspoken students to answer, and engage with their peers over the more challenging application questions.

This article was of particular interest to me because I teach small classes and have used clicker-type questions during my lectures, but without any technology – I just post the question and ask students to work out the answer and vote, or sometimes use a think-pair-share model for harder questions. I’ve been considering the use of a clicker-replacement app such as eclicker or Polls Everywhere to make it a little more fun and anonymous to encourage everyone to participate, and this article gives me a little push to act on that next term. It also made me realize that I could administer my pre-reading quizzes using this technology, which would save me some marking time and show me instantly how students did on each question.

Smith, M.K., Trujillo, C., & Siu, T.T. (2011) The benefits of using clickers in small-enrollment seminar-style biology courses. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 10, 14-17.