Getting away from lecture

Sep 17 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

For the past few years I have been responsible for 1.3 undergrad courses in the spring semester. The class I teach myself has about 25 students, whereas the course I only responsible for part of has closer to 65. I have taught them entirely as lectures in the past and focused on honing the material to what I think are the central concepts. Overall, it has been decently effective, but I remain frustrated that a decent proportion of the class still can't wrap their heads around some key information by the time the final rolls around.

Although it would be convenient to blame this on the students not studying enough... back in my day... uphill both ways... everything cost a nickel... etc., the situation is not all that different from the "that reviewer didn't understand!" refrain of the grant game. The solution is the same: change your approach to clarify so that they can't miss the point. Last year I restructured the lectures and tried to build in some reinforcement of the topics I wanted to sink in, with only a minor improvement in retention.

So, I am musing about ways to break up the lecture and get the students involved. For the bigger class I've talked about incorporating clickers before and gotten some good advice in that comment thread about dealing with the smaller class. In particular, Alyssa was a big proponent of the "think, pair, share" approach and several others supported that idea.

In playing with this concept, one of the major issues I run into is that what I teach does not really have "problem sets" that are ready made for this strategy. The same applies for the online homework that Arlenna suggested. I think my solution will have to involve using exam-like questions that take the concepts just discussed and makes students tie those back to previous material.

Of course, the other key piece of this is avoiding a full overhaul of my lectures. Whereas I'm happy to tweak and update, anyone who has built a course from the ground up knows how time consuming that process is. This spring will be the last semester before my tenure packet goes in and I'll be dedicating my time to getting papers out and proposals written, not making sure I push my teaching evals from good to great. In a cost benefit analysis, it unfortunately doesn't make sense.

And so it goes, doing the best you can with the time you can spend.

7 responses so far

  • Katie says:

    My think-pair-share questions sometimes are detailed, but often are not. For example, I teach an introductory oceanography class and as we start talking about plate tectonics I throw up a map of the ocean floor color coded by age - but with no legend. This is before we specifically talk about sea floor spreading, but most have heard about it at some point in their past education. I ask them to brainstorm what the color coding could represent, alone, then to share with their neighbors and talk about the other ideas. Then I ask them to share the ideas. All this takes from me is cropping out the legend. There are often groups that come up with the correct answer of the age of the seafloor, but the other ideas are interesting too. We then continue on and that same figure is shown at the end of the discussion on sea floor spreading with another think-pair-share opportunity about relative rates of spreading. I find it helps them retain it more than if I just lecture about it. I also use clickers -- but I have 150+ students in my class.

  • LD says:

    I have found one thing that works for those students who start out getting D's on the exams: make them WRITE exam questions after each lecture. And grade their questions. They end up getting A's on the final.

  • whizbang says:

    I taught fluid, electrolyte, and acid-base physiology at my old job for many years, mostly using standard lectures with some audience response questions thrown in to wake everyone up and let me gage comprehension.
    As I start to teach these tomorrow at my new place, I am flipping the content. I have provided all of my handouts (very detailed) and narrated my old lecture slides (highlighting the critical material) as PowerPoint shows to be viewed before class time. During class I have case-based questions (these are second year medical students) for groups of 2-3 students to discuss. There is a required 2-hour session, also case-based, that integrates all 6 hours of material I am teaching.
    I will be blogging about this experience over at WhizBANG as the course goes on this week. Stay tuned!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Sounds like a good way to do it. Unfortunately, I don't think that would fly with the students and material I have. I teach my grad course totally differently, but undergrads don't seem to like when you stray too far from the script.

  • Travis says:


    Very interested to hear how it goes. I'm very interested in running a course that way - assigned readings/videos/etc before hand, then focusing on problem solving and group discussions in "lecture" time.

    @Prof-like substance,

    FWIW, I've used think-pair-share for really basic stuff and found it still works really well. Such as "how would you define sedentary behaviour/physical activity?". They write it down, they discuss with a partner, then a few groups share what they came up with with the whole class. Then we all chat about it. Then I tell them how we define the terms in the research context, and then look at a bunch of scenarios to let them decide whether it represents physical activity or not (clickers would work well here). By the end of the practice questions they are pretty much 100% clear on what the terms do/do not mean, which in my experience is way better than just providing them with the definitions.

    All that to say that think-pair-share works really well with problem solving, but it also works really well when you're just asking students what they already know about a topic, to get them thinking about it before you dive into the content itself.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Good to know. I need to play with it a bit before I'm going to feel comfortable with it, I think.

  • Alex says:

    A few ways to do it that's even cheaper (time-wise) thank think-pair-share:

    1) Very short quizzes, either right at the start of class or before class (in a system like Blackboard). It sounds old-fashioned but it's considered very progressive. You incentivize preparation, you get them to do something that has them thinking right at the start, and then you immediately discuss it. What you are discussing with them is directly related to what they just read and what they just put some thought into. This makes for a better use of time. It does cut into lecture time, but if you're incentivizing preparation you can skip the elementary introduction to something and go to the more sophisticated or nuanced part.

    It's considered very progressive in some disciplines.

    2) Something I do is give, in addition to regular, longer assignments, very short assignments, like one question that they can answer in a few sentences or a short calculation (e.g. "We just went over concept X in class, here's some data from a paper, you tell me whether X is happening here, or how big the effect is, etc."). It helps retention of what I just lectured on, and you have something to discuss at the beginning of the next class.

    Both of these do mean you do more grading, admittedly, but you can make the grading easy by making the quizzes short and focused on getting them to prepare and think about the lecture topic rather than getting them to write out complicated things that necessitate detailed grading.

    If you adopt one of these (and you don't have to do it every class, I do a quiz or special assignment for about half of the sessions), and somewhere in the middle of lecture you take a topic and give them a few tricky questions to think-pair-share on, you reduce the minutes of lecture material to prepare and you keep them thinking.

    Some people insist that doing this requires you to drink the kool-aid and adopt a very progressive mindset, and they can get very evangelical about their superior teaching methods. I think it's a simple matter of keeping them thinking and studying and preparing, which has been known to improve learning since time immemorial.

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