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College Lecture Classes Need Overhaul

Study finds interaction is the key to learning

New research finds that  when instructors switch to a more interactive teaching approach, students in large lecture classes learn more.
New research finds that when instructors switch to a more interactive teaching approach, students in large lecture classes learn more.

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Rosanne Skirble

Students learn more, attend class at higher rates and are more engaged in their education when teachers take a more interactive approach in the classroom, according to a new study.

Researchers focused on two large introductory physics classes at the University of British Columbia in Canada which had more than 250 students in each section. Both classes were held in a theater-style room with fixed seats.

For one week, the control group was taught in the traditional lecture style by a well-rated, experienced instructor. However, in the experimental group, the more inexperienced instructor did not lecture. Instead, students were divided into groups of two or three to discuss and answer a series of questions, projected on a large screen.

This interactive approach was developed by the study co-author, Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, who is currently associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“There was a great deal of careful data collected showing how identical the two sections, these two large sections of the class were beforehand," Wieman says. "And this focused very much on looking at exactly what could be learned with the different methods from the classroom experience, the time when you have the maximum student-instructor - or face to face - interaction time.”

University of British Columbia post-doctoral fellow Louis Deslauriers, one of the study’s co-authors, was an instructor in the experimental class. He and doctoral student Ellen Schelew directed questions, listened to student discussions, recorded results and delivered feedback to individuals and the group.“As an instructor you really have to be on your toes,” he says.

Schelew says the method encourages students to think like scientists. She says they learn to make and test predictions, solve problems and reason critically.

“Their brains are turned on. They’re thinking hard and they’re really working through these problems. So even if they don’t have enough time to complete a given problem, they are prepared to learn from the instructor feedback that always follows groups’ tasks.”

In a test of the material immediately following the experiment, students in the interactive class scored twice as high as those in the control section. Other data showed that they were more engaged in learning. A survey given to the experimental group afterward found 90 percent of students liked the interactive style.

The study results reinforce research showing that traditional, passive lecture formats are not the most effective way to teach large classes. Co-author Carl Wieman, on leave from his post as director of Science Education Initiatives at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado, says teaching methods need to change. “That’s what this study shows is that there’s a lot better way to do things and faculty ought to be switching over.”

Wieman notes that 55 courses at the University of Colorado have already made the switch. He’s hoping that many more colleges take up the initiative that can energize teaching and learning.

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