Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ditch The Lecture: A New Approach to Science in Higher Education

Memories of college courses too often call to mind huge lecture halls, dominated by a droning instructor and filled with students either scribbling notes or struggling to stay awake. These large lectures are likely most familiar to anyone who has studied math or science. However, physics faculty at a few progressive institutions around the country are beginning to question this model.

The upheaval began with David Hestenes of Arizona State, who noticed that his students weren't doing well on his final exams. Hestenes realized that his students seemed to be memorizing and using formulas well but weren’t able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts he thought he was explaining in his lectures. He began to experiment with different methods of instruction and wrote several articles about the problem. Hestenes believed that passive processing was to blame. "Students have to be active in developing their knowledge," he noted in a story by Emily Hanford on National Public Radio's All Things Considered program. "They can't passively assimilate it." 

The NPR piece noted that Harvard physicist Eric Mazur read Hestenes’s articles and immediately recognized the same problems in his own students. As a result, his teaching methodology has changed radically. Instead of lecturing, Mazur presents students with questions that they must answer independently, then answer once again after discussing the question with a group. Mazur then explains the correct answer to the whole class, describing important principles and strategies. He calls this method “peer instruction,” and says that learning rates in his courses have tripled as a result. Importantly, peer instruction can be used for even very large groups of students and is therefore possible even at the most cash-strapped schools.

Here at The Yellin Center, we find that strategies which prompt students to process information actively can help them be more successful in school. For example, many of our students have benefitted from arranging information with a graphic organizer or taking Cornell notes; both processes require students to think deeply and critically about concepts. What other methods can you and the students in your life use to become more active processors of information?

Photo used under Creative Commons by UMMS IT org

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