Lecturing alternatives, did it help?

Mar 05 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

At the beginning of the semester I decided I was going to use some different approaches in my teaching. I just finished grading the exams from two different course in which I have employed similar methodology. The results were fascinating to me and counter to my expectations.

For the first third of the semester I teach two courses with overlapping material:

Class 1.
~60 students
Meets 3x / week
50 minute classes
2 quizzes during my reign of terror
Mandatory midterm exam
Course covering breadth rather than depth.

Class 2
~30 students
Meets 2x / week
75 minute classes
No quizzes during this time
Optional* midterm exam (*long story here)
Course deals with similar material as Course 1, but in greater depth.

When I started the semester I was certain I would see an improvement in retention in the smaller class, based on the use of Think/Pair/Share activities and I thought the clicker questions would help the larger class. I wasn't sure how Class one would do with the T/P/S stuff.

Large improvement in class one, based on exam performance. There was about a 10 point increase in the midterm grade average over the last two years of classes. Part of this might be me retooling these lectures and cutting the material down substantially, but that was largely driven by needing to rethink my lectures to incorporate new activities. In years past we have seen about 10-15% of the class drop after the first exam. This year I will be surprised if the number is as high as 5%.

Class two is a different matter. The grades on this midterm was demonstrably worse than last year, with the class average dropping nearly 10 points compared to three other semesters. Despite me teaching concepts, discussing them in groups and back with the class, AND seeing them in lab, some concepts remain mysterious to the students. Honestly, this hurts my brain to imagine how this is happening, but clearly roughly half the students are missing these concepts that are dangled right in front of them half a dozen times. Surprisingly, the T/P/S and clickers have had no effect on retention. If anything, there has been a decline. It is notable that I have reduced the material covered in this class as well, based on incorporating new techniques.

So the puzzle of class two has me a little stumped. This is problematic because I teach this class the whole semester. Part of the reason I'm not too freaked out yet is because some of the students clearly came in knowing they could drop one exam and winged it. You don't get two students with single digit grades if they are taking it seriously. The exam policy was instituted so that I didn't have to chase people down for make-up exams, but I may be seeing a secondary effect that will even out as students get a little more serious for the next one. However, I had this policy last year. Not having quizzes may also be hurting the students' preparation, but this also isn't new.

I guess the second exam will be informative, but it would be nice to address the issue before we get there.

23 responses so far

  • Terry says:

    Do you think time slot mattered? When I've run the same lab at a variety of time slots, no matter what I change or don't change, the early afternoon classes always do the worst. (Also, I suspect that student study less for afternoon classes, because they happen in the middle of the day they don't like to think about them more than once. But morning classes get revisited more. When students are student in the evening, the focus on the scary thing that comes first in the morning.) /speculation

  • JaneB says:

    Timing also matters in my experience, but I have more issues with classes at the very start and end of the teaching day - in the former they are tired/hung over from being out the night before or up late, or just being up at an hour they sleep past on other days, in the latter their brains are kind of full and they're thinking about their evening meals. There can be a just before lunch blip too... I actually demonstrated the existence of the class timing effect on whether students thought material was interesting, whether they thought they understood material, and how well they did on quizzes on the material at the start of the next class for my 'post-graduate teaching certificate' project when I was a young(er) lecturer...

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Timing has not changed for these classes and Class 2 is earlier than class 1, though not "dangerously" early.

  • Terry says:

    Hmm. Maybe if the think that the clickers and T/P/S activities are touchy-feeley, that the exams'll be just as touchy-feeley? But if the clicker questions are fricking challenging, and they know that exam questions will look like that too...? Right-o, the means the second exam will be two interesting datums. (Is that a proper way to say two datapoints? Or do you say two data?)

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Many of the multiple choice questions on the test were clicker questions and several of the short answer were based on T/P/S questions. I don't know what more I can do.

  • Joshua King says:

    Don't ignore class dynamic. Every class is different and you honestly won't know your results without more replication (across different groups of students but with the same material). Also, don't forget that you and the rest of us are battling a now institutionalized (in 1st grade to high school) departure from traditional teaching that emphasized learning and growth. Now the emphasis is on grades and scores. This is not trivial and I don't think we understand how it impacts the ability of students to deal with learning at the college level, yet.

  • Alyssa says:

    Have you done surveys with your classes on how useful they think the activities are? It might give you an idea if you're dealing with a class of people that just don't benefit from those teaching techniques, or if some other factor is coming into play.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Armies have been around longer than universities. Army instruction, as I learned to do it, in 50 minute chunks, starts with a short quiz over the previous hour, and ends with a short quiz over the material covered in the present hour. In my experience, the more exams, even just very small ones, is well correlated with student success and retention in the introductory general education courses. Having exams covering a small amount of material, both makes the student think that learning the material is manageable, and cuts down on the possibility of procrastinating.

  • qaz says:

    One thing I noticed as I started to include more of this "active learning" stuff into the classes that I teach is that regular exams make a lot of difference. In part, I think that this keeps the students on their toes - it's easy to talk a good game, but not really know the material. And, in part, (for me at least), I think it teaches the students how to answer the kind of (essay) questions I give, which requires a little more on-the-fly integration than they seem to be used to.

    As an experiment, you've got two big differences - the whole T/P/S thing and optional exams.

    And, of course, as pointed out by Thomerson, spaced learning is retained better than massed cramming.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It may be that I need to institute more quizzes. I have resisted doing this because of the grading involved, but if I limit them to a couple of questions that are multiple choice, diagram labeling or one word answer, then it may be relatively painless.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    qaz, I was doing T/P/S and clickers in both classes, I just expected it to be more effective in the smaller class. The optional exam thing is different between the classes, but not from this year to last.

    WRT to class variation, I actually felt last year's class was one of the more problematic that I've had. They were exceedingly quiet and unengaged, despite a lot of effort on my part to get them talking. This class is the opposite, and yet the grades were sharply reduced....

  • Viola says:

    Thanks for sharing this, PLS - I'll be interested in hearing how the rest of the semester goes. In terms of more frequent quizzes, do you have an online option? I do weekly quizzes on Moodle, and while they take me a bit longer to write, they take no grading time at all (multiple choice, of course). Maybe this would be a relatively painless way to keep them up to date next year.

  • Terry says:

    Ungraded quizzes.

    What I have done is have a quick quiz every class, for three minutes. I have them switch with their neighbor (or not, if they don't want to), to grade it. Then they recycle that piece of paper.

    They get the benefit of taking a quiz to know whether or not they know the material and are ready for an exam, but they don't have to stress every day about whether they'll take a hit to the grade.

    This fulfills the primary function of a quiz (at least, in my view) without the time grading.

    Classes do have group personalities and attributes that affect the entire outcome. Not that I'm a group selectionist 🙂

  • --bill says:

    Students work for grades. It's possible the major difference between your classes is that the first class had to study outside of class every week, because of the quizzes.

  • Terry says:

    Clearly, grades need to be earned, and students need to work for grades.

    But if you're using grades to motivate students, it will be very difficult for them to genuinely learn.

  • Kathe says:

    Have you considered that because they are talking more, they may equate that with "understanding" the material, and thus are studying less? I have had that happen in my social science classes.

    I agree that you might want to ask each class about how much time they are studying each day/week/before tests and how they see their participation in class as impacting their studying time.

    The data that I have seen about clickers in small(er) classes is much more mixed than in large classes. Have you noticed if nearly all are clicking in, in the small class? Sometimes they might not be, and that might be having an impact.

    Are clicker questions for points or just to generate discussion?

    Intriguing questions -- keep us posted!

  • Dan says:

    I wonder if this article might be instructive:


    The title says it all: Active Learning Not Associated with Student Learning in a Random Sample of College Biology Courses

    The authors speculate that many of us trying active learning aren't specialists in teaching and learning, and consequently, we are doing it wrong. If they are right, it means we need support in moving to this kind of teaching.

  • Alex says:

    You don't necessarily want support in implementing active learning. Trust me. The experts cann sometimes be very preachy. They have these fall and redemption narratives. "I used to teach via traditional methods until one day I saw the light, and now I am saved!" I refer to them as Campus Crusade For Clickers.

    I don't see it as my job to make sure that they learn. I see it as my job to make opportunities for learning. To that end, I use clickers to create opportunities for participation, because I know that if they choose to participate, and if they choose to think carefully while participating, they will probably learn a lot. Perhaps if I really put aside my distaste for the preachy education reformers I could be a bit more effective, but I have to consider my blood pressure. If my blood pressure goes up, the university's health insurance premiums go up, which increases the cost of education for our disadvantaged students.

    However, I do have to grant that the reformers are right about one thing: Lecturing doesn't work. I know this is true because when I go to their lectures I come away pissed off and unpersuaded by anything they said. So clearly their lectures didn't work.

  • Dan says:

    Support doesn't have to mean Campus Crusade For Clickers (hee hee- I love it!)

    It could mean peer coaching and opportunities for feedback and self-reflection, it could mean written resources, it could be being given the time and mental space to actually think about these things. I'm sure that there are lots of things that we could find useful as teachers. I think the point of the study is there is no active learning magic if it isn't done well.

  • Terry says:

    The authors speculate that many of us trying active learning aren't specialists in teaching and learning, and consequently, we are doing it wrong. If they are right, it means we need support in moving to this kind of teaching.

    So, we're as bad at active learning as we are at lecturing. We should learn to do neither?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I use the clickers to gauge where the class is at in terms of understanding concepts we recently discussed. I use the T/P/S activities to make them think and synthesize. I'm going to chat with the class today to see where they have ideas about what would help them (NOT including more spoon feeding on my end).

  • Dan says:

    I'll be very interested to hear what the class says! Please do share.

  • RogerDodger says:

    Your experience, and some of the comments, reflect exactly what I have observed using carefully constructed scenarios over several years. I have thousands of data points, statistically valid conclusions with controls, and really need to write it all up for one of those educational journals. Here's the skinny:

    1) Most of the stuff you read regarding the latest pedagogical fads is wishy-washy B.S./advertising that doesn't actually work. Forget the 'flipped classroom' and clicker hype. Those things can help, but there are lots of other ways to skin the same cats. And some of those things are counterproductive (because they decrease the amount of material you can cover, add logistical hassles to the class, or require students to spend money buying pedagogical crutches for you.)

    2) Athletics coaches and the military know exactly what works, and have been using it for a long time: Drill Drill Drill Practice Practice Practice. Students that do stuff get better at doing that stuff. You can't talk about shooting or winning games and expect to hit the target or win games. You have to get out there on the practice range and scrimmage. And just like in animal experiments, learning is remarkably specific. Memorizing terms doesn't help problem solving, and interpreting diagrams doesn't help drawing inferences. Make them practice exactly what you want them to get better at.

    3) Students (like everyone else) want to feel in control of their lives. Be clear about what you want them to do, give them lots of chances to try whatever you want them to be able to do, give them accurate frequent feedback about how they're doing, and then grade them exactly how you said you would.

    I threw #3 in because I have found a general disconnect between student performance and instructor evaluations. Students can fail to learn and love you, or learn really well and hate you. Weird.

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