A curmudgeon’s musings on modern pedagogy

(warning this is long – you can skip to the conclusions or even bottom-bottom line at the end if you want)

I am not an expert on pedagogical methods. But I have been on the teacher side of university education for almost 20 years. And I’ve literally taught 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600 level classes. I’ve taught classes ranging from 630 students to 3. Math-oriented to field-based. In short a pretty typical mid-career teaching history. And about 8 years ago, I took over a 600+ student intro bio class (basically BIO 100) and spent a lot of time thinking about goals which led to my introducing clickers which led to my basically being the lead academic (working with the campus learning center) leading clicker introduction in basic science classes across campus. And I was a TA in a class before and after introduction of active learning. (my most recent experience with changing pedagogy in a class is discussed below) So I’ve formed a few opinions along the way.

I am by no means at a settled state of where I think university education should go. But the following are a few thoughts and musings. (NB Meg has a series of good posts on this topic as well: here   here and Friday links here  and Terry has a bunch of good posts over at Small Pond here and here).

Point #1- Buzzword blur – we tend to just lump all the trends together but they are not the same. You can do one without the other. (And there are distinct goals and rationales in each case). Here is a quick tour

  • Active learning – activities in which the students are not just passively listening but actively producing knowledge via inquiry, answering questions, discussing, etc. This was one of the earliest movements (in ascendancy in late 90s).
  • Peer instruction – a model in which students teach each other. Often students are given a question and then discuss the answer with their peer students. This draws on research showing most people learn better in a social context. When tested via before & after versions of the same question using clickers I am astonished at the improvement (often 10% right to 95% right).
  • Flipped classroom – the buzzword du jour – this starts from the notion that lecturing is a relic from the days when textbooks were rare (hand copied). Flipping means students do passive learning (reading, watching lectures) at home on their own schedule, and then uses the classroom with the instructor present to do something more active where the instructor can intervene and assist. This can be as simple as having students do what used to be their homework now done in class and raise their hand for help to much newer approaches like peer instruction.
  • Just-in-Time-Teaching – the notion that the teacher will dynamically adapt the material being taught based on real-time feedback on what students are not understanding. This implies an ability to reteach material in a new way. It also implies real time feedback either from quizzes just before class or some in class feedback mechanism (clickers, hands raised) or although nobody talks about it old-fashioned sensitivity to puzzled looks on students faces.
  • Inquiry based learning/Investigative learning – instead of teaching material, giving students problems (specifically non-trivial problems) to solve. The teachers role is as a facilitator to help students discover first the process they need to use then the answer to the questions themselves.

Point #2 – Clickers – clickers are just a tool – they can be used for any of the above techniques or for purposes not listed above. At one end clickers can be used to pose simple multiple choice questions and then reward or penalize based on attendance (there is a difference and both are possible) Clickers can also be used in peer instruction (get clicker answers, show what everybody answered, discuss for 2 minutes with peers, then revote – amazing improvement occurs)  Clickers can also be an important tool in just-in-time-teaching if the teacher is flexible enough (i.e they’re a great way to find out if the students really understand what you just taught if you’re brave enough to deal with a no they didn’t answer). Generally one should only expect as much out of clickers as one puts into them. And clickers have real issues about cost – old fashioned methods like hand raising can do many of the same things (although its harder to force 100% participation). Honestly, I think the single biggest value of clickers is to serve as a disruptor and force you to think about how and why you teach. And if you don’t do that thinking, then clickers aren’t doing much.

Point #3 – Remembering why we are doing this – Although often not made explicit the goal of most of the techniques listed in Point 1 is to elevate learning up Bloom’s taxonomy. If this is not the goal, then such techniques are not necessarily the best approach. Bloom’s taxonomy was formulated in three domains: cognitive, emotional & physical, but the most talked about and the relevant one here is the cognitive. This recognizes the simple idea that there are different levels of learning starting with knowledge (memorize facts), then comprehension (extrapolate/understand), then analysis (using knowledge) then synthesis then evaluation. The last sentence is immensely oversimplified of course. But this is the central motivation of all of these techniques: to elevate learning up the taxonomy. Much of the origin of these techniques started in physics when people realized students were memorizing formulas enough to plug and chug on tests, but had major failures in basic intuition about how physics works. So they began teaching to develop higher level mastery.

Learning higher up on the taxonomy is obviously a good thing. But the thing I never hear anybody discuss is that it is part of an inherent trade-off. It is essentially a depth vs breadth trade-off. Any realistic application of active learning etc techniques to elevate learning involves covering less material. Covering better, but covering less. Are there times and places in university courses to cover the breadth rather than the depth? I struggled with this question a lot teaching intro bio. The breadth expected of that course from higher level courses, and indeed the breadth of life gives a strong demand in the breadth direction. But to cover it meant giving up on deeper understanding of higher level concepts like homoplasy. Which is more important: a) truly understanding homoplasy rather than just being able to regurgitate a definition of homoplasy (e.g. being able to produce new examples of homoplasy which would probably be the applying or 3rd level of Bloom’s taxonomy) or b) remembering platyhelminthes and their acoelemate architecture and basal position (level 1 or remembering)? Maybe some of you out there are such fantastic teachers you can achieve both in a semester. But in my experience this trade-off is very real (not on just these two exact topics of course but on these two levels of learning across all of the material to cover in an intro bio class). I never did fully decide what I thought about this and I’d be curious to hear what others say. But I do strongly believe there is a trade-off between breadth and depth (moving up the taxonomy).that is not talked about enough.

Point #4 – Notetaking – I find it ironic that in this day and age of focus on active learning and moving up the taxonomy, teachers have largely capitulated on giving students copies of powerpoint slides and eliminating a very effective method for doing real-time active learning while listening to lectures (with many studies showing that note taking is a very effective learning method). And nobody is calling this out.

Point #5 – You can go halfway (or 10%) in – It seems to me the conversation is very binary. All-in flipped/active learning/peer instruction 100% of the time or boring old traditional. This is totally bogus. If active learning has value, then one five minute exercise per hour (or even every other class) has value. And practically, it is very possible to choose anywhere on the spectrum from 0% to 100% flipped/active. This is also my reason for being pedantic and breaking apart the ideas in point #1. One can flip without inquiry based,  do active learning without just-in-time, etc.

Point #6 – This is not new – Another thing that is not discussed very often is that these techniques are hardly new (but see this link and commentary of Terry’s). Socrates was demanding productive/active learning using inquiry based techniques and peer instruction 2500 years ago. And many teachers have been doing the same for decades (and millenia).

Point #7 – How hard is it to do? – You can find various opinions about how much work it is to flip a class room (see Meg here and Terry here). My main experience was also the first time I taught the class so it is hard to separate the two. I don’t think I have an informed opinion. But I do think that for those of us raised in the traditional lecture mode, it can take more creativity and emotional energy to do something new and different.

Point #8 – Does it work? – My sense of the overall empirical literature on how effective these techniques is that the answer is complex, which matches my own experiences. There is a lot of evidence that active learning etc approaches match what we know from cognitive psychology about how we learn best, but this is indirect evidence for superior learning occurring. Students on average also enjoy these techniques. This is also indirect evidence (but very relevant in its own right). More directly, studies show statistically significant improvements in level of learning with active approaches but the pedagogical significance is tougher to assess. A good recent metanalysis is Freeman et al They show one half standard deviation improvement which amounts to about 6 points out of 100 improvement (less on traditional exams, more on higher level learning concept inventories).  But there are a lot of issues with these studies (e.g. are more motivated teachers more likely to adopt active learning techniques but succeed primarily because of the motivation not the method – or are they likely to teach better because the change in technique is forcing new energy and attention to teaching regardless of technique).

My own experience with a partial commitment to such techniques in the BIO 100 course is that the students scored exactly the same average (and I mean to 2 significant digits) on the final exam as they did in the earlier version of the course. It was a a rewritten exam, and I would like to argue that it was testing further up the taxonomy. But this was not formally measured. And it wasn’t miles up the taxonomy (it was still multiple choice for goodness sake). My overall impression is that there is an improvement in “learning” (hard as that is to define and measure) but it is not stunning or even by obvious amounts (i.e. I would have to use statistics to tease apart the improvements) .Its certainly not like every student is suddenly moving up a grade (e.g. B to A) in class or anything. Freeman suggests 4-5 points on traditional exams which might be a B- to a B. This still sounds a little high compared to the experiences I know of but not outrageously high. But I am more confident (based on experience and literature) that students are enjoying things more, paying attention more, and probably developing a slightly more sophisticated understanding. And that is nothing to sneeze at.

My most recent personal experience with pedagogy reform

This year I abandoned powerpoint (except for occasional graphs and pictures) and did a lot of chalk boarding but in the end you would have to say they were “traditional” lecture classes (in fact really old school lectures without visual aids except the chalk board). But the students took lots of notes (no powerpoints to give). And I spent a lot of time asking and being asked questions (there were <20 students so everybody was involved). Indeed, despite always making dialogue during class a top priority, a lot more happened this year – somehow powerpoint seems to introduce a wall and turns the goal into finishing the slides instead of teaching/learning. I did some peer instruction and also just giving ecological math problems to do individually in class, but most of it was more in the vein of Socratic inquiry (i.e. teacher asking a question and getting multiple responses back). So I wasn’t following too many of the buzzwords, but it felt like a much improved class to me. Was this good pedagogy or bad? NB: I am officially combining point #4 with this experience to launch a new pedagogical movement called “PowerPoint is evil”. If this takes off, you heard it here first! But then again, its possible that getting rid of the powerpoint was just the disruptor (as mentioned above with clickers) that made me pay more attention to my teaching and five years from now adding PowerPoint back in will improve my teaching. (UPDATE – just found this lovely piece on teaching with chalk by Chris Buddle)

Point #9 – Class size – Thinking about class sizes above raises another big point – one that I’m sure administrations won’t like. But how much can pedagogy innovation do to fundamentally change learning (or lack thereof) in a classroom of 600 (or 300 or even 100) students? Teaching a class of 15 students effectively is pretty easy.Teaching a class of 300 effectively is impossible no matter what. The aforementioned meta-analysis by Freeman showed pretty clearly that active learning is most effective in classes with <50 students and decreases in effectiveness pretty quickly in larger classes. Is pedagogy improvement just a giant distraction from the real issue?


Overall, I think the emphasis on pedagogical methods is fantastic (and largely unprecedented in higher ed – most previous reform movements have focused on curricular reform). And I do think there is something real and of value in the active learning movement.But its not ginormous. And I also think we have gotten overly simplistic, reducing teaching to a one-dimensional bad (traditional) vs good (100% active learning) axis. The reality is that even the concept of learning is multidimensional (with the Bloom taxonomy being but a single dimension) and that pro-con trade-offs exist on all of these dimensions. This makes it impossible to to say what the “best” teaching method is without specifying the learning goal. In practice, I think we are better off to think of the traditional vs active/flipped axis as a dial we should tune depending on the situation and goals. And this dial has positions everywhere in between 0 and 100. And it is not one-dimensional it has multiple dimensions including 0-100% flipped, 0-100% just-in-time, 0-100% peer instruction, 0-100% inquiry based learning independent of each other and etc. And, although I haven’t fully worked it out for myself, I believe in some contexts breadth is a more important goal than higher taxonomy learning. We don’t have a set of best practices for breadth-oriented learning yet, but I wish we did.

One big thing I hope comes out of all of this is that we spend a lot more time in our departments and among colleagues having discussions about what our learning goals are (and no I don’t mean the kind my university requires me to list on my syllabus under the heading goals that are just lists of topics covered). I mean talking about how far up the taxonomy should a class go. What breadth is necessary and appropriate in this class to set up future years. Which classes are appropriate for different kinds of learning. Perhaps ecology and genetics should focus on high level learning and BIO 100 should focus on memorizing the phyla of life? Or maybe not? How important is a 6 point increase on an exam (and maybe half of that in a large class)? Would we be better off scrapping exams and lectures and active learning and putting them in hands-on labs? or taking ecology students out in the field to design their own experiments? Recall that there are finite resources so there are trade-offs and limits. How can we measure and assess whether we are succeeding? We need to start having discussions about pedagogical goals in departments. Logically that should proceed decisions about classroom pedagogical methods, but I’m not sure this is how things have happened.

Bottom bottom line – Modern pedagogy (=active learning/flipped class/etc) is not a silver bullet and it should not become the good end of a one-dimensional value judgement (flipped=good, not flipped=bad teaching). But these techniques definitely have some benefits. There are probably other issues we should be talking about equally much ranging from the simple like the declining art of notetaking to the difficult like class sizes. And maybe just mixing up our teaching approach periodically is more important than any specific technique. More broadly we need to think deeply and discuss regularly about our pedagogical goals, especially depth vs breadth, and the best ways to get there.

What are your experiences with the modern pedagogy movement? Has flipping classrooms become a bandwagon? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is there a breadth vs depth (=up the taxonomy) tradeoff? Should we ever choose breadth? Which of the techniques in point #1 do you think are most important?

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About Brian McGill

I am a macroecologist at the University of Maine. I study how human-caused global change (especially global warming and land cover change) affect communities, biodiversity and our global ecology.

27 thoughts on “A curmudgeon’s musings on modern pedagogy

  1. As someone with similar experience to you ( except I’ve not taught a flip class) I agree with about everything you say, especially about the evils of PowerPoint and the importance of making students actually take notes. Nice article.

    Rob K

  2. One trope in evaluating pedagogy is the “I tried it and I didn’t see much improvement”. But we all know from experience that practice makes perfect–there is the old rule that you never want to take a course being taught for the first time. So when I flipped my Ecology course I found myself learning on the job. As a consequence, I would feel queasy comparing evaluations/test scores from my last lecture version of ecology to my first-time flipped version. That said, all the feedback that I intuited suggests this was a better way. Time will tell.

    Regarding breadth vs depth–I think biology starts in such a deep deep hole compared to the other intro science courses that one can comfortably ignore a lot of material toward teaching most of the big principles. And by “deep deep hole”, I mean vocabulary (compare the number of pages in the indices of an Intro Physics and Intro Bio textbook). I read, and accept, that a student in a traditional Intro Bio course has a longer vocab list to memorize than one in any first semester modern languages.

    Finally, it seems a great trend that scientists are starting to pay more attention to developing their teaching chops (part of an increasing awareness of our role in society, along with the importance of broader impacts?). I’ve seen science pedagogy improve from an oxymoron to something with real utility (as Brian’s citations suggest). But much of teaching is still cognitive psych and empathy, “mind hacks” and things one can learn. And for my money, the best book by far in this regard is Lemov’s “Teach like a champion”. Spend a semester with this book and I guarantee you will build up your teaching toolkit.

    • I personally am beginning to discover that change usually improves my teaching. Although this is not what I ever try to do – I aim much higher in my teaching – it is possible to mail it in with active learning just as much as lectures (and I’ve seen this happen in other classrooms). I think keeping teaching slightly out of the teachers comfort zone so they are “on edge” might be the single best technique!

      While not denying your point that proficiency improves over time, I think there is a downside too (at least for me but maybe I’m especially lazy).

      I’m curious have you repeat taught your class. If so how did you find your 2nd flipped year vs 1st?

      • I agree that being a bit outside your comfort zone keeps you aware and reactive. Interestingly, I am rarely nervous before presenting a seminar, I am *always* nervous before teaching a class.

        I’ll know more when I teach again this Fall. The hardest thing about flipping Ecology was coming up with valid and interesting in-class exercises and figuring out when to call “time”, given that there are multiple reasons why groups complete an exercise early and late.

        If anyone has some tips on this, or, more generally, one big hole they discovered in their own pedagogical expertise when they tried to flip a course, I’d love to hear it.

      • While not knowing the structure of your ecology course, I discovered a neat way to develop and implement in-class exercises that was really effective at cultivating and maintaining attention. The weekly lab portion of the course was used to have students collect rudimentary kinds of data in the field. These “quickie” excursions involved basic assessments of plant & insect communities, animal behavior, soil & water chemistry, and so on. I found when I transferred these data to the lecture portion of the course, and had small groups of students perform analyses of various kinds related to the lecture material, they were much more enthused compared to, for example, use of standardized exercises out of the textbooks.

  3. “Point #4 – Notetaking – I find it ironic that in this day and age of focus on active learning and moving up the taxonomy, teachers have largely capitulated on giving students copies of powerpoint slides and eliminating a very effective method for doing real-time active learning while listening to lectures (with many studies showing that note taking is a very effective learning method). And nobody is calling this out.”

    This, I believe- is an EXCELLENT POINT, Brian. Very astute of you to highlight this issue. Yup- my experience suggests the worst approach anyone can take to teaching is handing out those damned copies of powerpoint slides. I realized immediately that student performance on exams plummeted when I did this (and I only did it during one term, and never again). I was curious enough, though, to investigate why this was happening. So I sat in on another prof’s lecture for a term to observe what was taking place. Roughly half of the students seemed to simply tune the lecturer out, assuming she was simply repeating what was already on the printed page. Other students seemed distracted by the printouts because the lecturer either drifted substantially away from the points on the page, or the printed material seemed to conflict with the verbal presentation. In actuality, there was not any conflict, but when the lecturer used verbiage different from that on the page, students seemed confused.

    I’m curious if anyone has found a way to make this approach productive. My experience was that it caused students to become less engaged.

    • My watershed moment was when I was walking around while lecturing and saw a student putting check marks next to things on the slides as I said them.

      I now prepare powerpoints that only have figures and pictures (and diagrams). I give those to the students. And I prepare lecture notes for myself separate from the powerpoints. Students don’t see them and I don’t share them.

    • A hybrid tactic is to include only complex illustrations as handouts–things that students couldn’t hope to copy accurately–but making a point of annotating them so that they put pen to paper even on the handouts.

      • Yes! I was slow with my comment (below) and missed yours. I use a single source file so I can keep everything in one place but I mark each piece of information for lecture only or for pre-class notes. By having a singe source file and then conditional compilation to the pdf results this helps me stay organized. But one could also do this manually.

  4. Re: Clickers. I’ve used clickers in a large, first-year course a number of times. I have found that open-ended questions work much better, so I’m probably going to ditch the clickers, which are mostly just a distraction. I’m not worried about a decrease in participation because answering a clicker question isn’t really participating anyway.

  5. Agreed, as a new professor and having had very few large classroom experiences as a student, changing my teaching style to suit being in front of them is extremely challenging. I really value your insights and appreciate the time you’ve taken to explore them here!

  6. Fun post Brian, thanks.

    On breadth vs depth: I agree that the trade-off is real. Two considerations have pushed me towards emphasizing depth: 1) The information age–they can look up the basic descriptive content, I don’t need to repackage Wikipedia for them. 2) Evidence that retention is very low after 6 months for superficially covered, descriptive content. On the other hand, if they can master a few important concepts, and improve their thinking or writing or analytical skills along the way, this seems more likely to pay long-term dividends.

    I totally agree with you that PowerPoint is evil. Instant passivity. I’m not sure why. I remember the very first time I taught, I noticed that as soon as the slides went up, energy in the room went down. But if someone asked a question and I said, “Ah…well…” then all the heads snapped up and the energy totally changed. Ever since I have been trying to figure out how to capture that off-script, ad-lib energy more consistently. I still end up doing some traditional lectures, to cover breadth when I can’t figure out a way around it, but I always feel like I am wasting everyone’s time when I do.

  7. I appreciated this essay and have a few comments. Encouraging active learning and inquiry based learning in my small classes with labs is relatively easy. So these comments are based on my experience teaching my larger ecology class (~120 students) which is pretty much a traditional lecture course. Making this course as effective as possible is an ongoing struggle!

    1. Introducing clickers (and figuring out how to use them effectively) has had a great reward to effort ratio.
    2. Using a whiteboard/chalkboard/overhead and taking it slow can be very helpful, but I need to be careful with my terrible handwriting. I use the whiteboard in my smaller classes supplemented with slides for figures and photographs. I rarely use the board in my larger lecture courses.
    3. It is possible to supply pre or post lecture handouts/notes that are not identical to the projected slides. This is my compromise with students. It provides a bit of hand holding for students who are still learning how to take notes. The certainty that the figures with labeled axes etc are in the pre- and post-class notes can free them from the compulsion to write down *everything*. The post-lecture notes can then also include anything that came up during questions in class and citations to textbook pages or other sources. Post-lecture notes omit figures that are in the textbook and just refer to them by figure number to keep file size down and allow printing. I use a system based on my modifications to http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/donald.eisenstein/more/BeamerLecture.html. This system helps me remember to make my slides a visual aid for the actual lecture and not start thinking that the slides are the lecture.

  8. Brian, excellent post and much appreciated. You’re probably familiar with Edward Tufte’s long-standing campaign against PowerPoint, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tufte#Criticism_of_PowerPoint, which he essentially blames for the Columbia shuttle disaster among other things. He focuses on its use in corporate rather than classroom settings, but many of the same issues apply. Of course slides can be done well or poorly, but I think you’re right about both the loss of note-taking effect and the risk of letting the slides, not the students, determine the pace of the lesson.

    One thing I wish you’d addressed more here is the fit between classroom size and pedagogical approach. It feels to me that most of the pedagogical literature and approaches you discuss here are all aimed at the large, introductory-level course. Of course such classes lend themselves better to statistical analysis of effects. How important is class size in considering the choice and effectiveness of the pedagogical approach? Other than class size, does your approach/experience vary with the motivation of the students — e.g. a intro class which students take to fulfill a requirement vs an elective class students pick primarily for the material?

    • ” It feels to me that most of the pedagogical literature and approaches you discuss here are all aimed at the large, introductory-level course. ”

      Actually, a fair number of the things Brian discusses are easiest to implement in small classes. Some forms of active learning and inquiry-based learning scale to any class size, some don’t. For instance, if you want students working on problem sets or practice questions in pairs or small groups in class, with a single instructor circulating to answer questions, that becomes unworkable beyond a certain class size.

      In preparation for teaching intro biostats (130 students), I bought Andrew Gelman’s book on a “bag of tricks” for teaching statistics. They’re great. But he comes right out and says that none of the tricks is feasible for a class of >60 students.

    • As Jeremy kind of noted, I think these techniques are designed for and work best at (and the Freeman analysis confirms the best at part) smaller (100) classes. This may be in part because instructors can feel how dysfunctional this context is. It may also be that they are the courses that the administration pays the most attention to. Certainly my experience at McGill was a mix of the two. I initiated the process but the university teaching center was all over it and broadened the scope quickly.

      As Jeremy noted scaling any sort of interaction with the instructors (guided active learning or inquiry based, facillitated peer discussion, etc) has a scaling problem. The normal solution is to bring all the TAs in. So ironically in large intro classes using these techniques has the effect of decreasing the time they interact with the professor (albeit admittedly a one-on-one conversation with a TA is quite likely a higher quality interaction than listening to a professor lecture and asking an occaiosaional question).

      This opinion may well get me in trouble but I think these approaches show the biggest bump among the lesser motivated students. To the extent that when I’m teaching graduate students I lean much less to some of these techniques because quite frankly they’re all motivated enough and good learners enough to get everything I cover in a lecture and I can fit more in that way (although I still ask a lot of questions and make sure students feel comfortable interrupting me). This gets a bit to Jeremy’s point below about how much of this bump is due either to improved motivation (which I think is real) or to tying class credit to things like readings outside of class and frequent quizzes which is really more of a sledgehammer (or if you prefer cleverly structured incentives) to force more work than fantastic pedagogy.

      I hadn’t looked at the Tufte stuff in a while but my father, who is in senior administration at a university, emailed me about this post saying that he observes loss of quality of discussion/thinking when powerpoints are used in meetings in a business setting too.

      • And having now read your Tufte link in Wikipedia – I really like his point that PowerPoint was invented to persuade, not inform.Sales was the first place in the business world to adopt powerpoint (I was there in business in the 1990s when it happened). Exactly as Tufte says – other kinds of management (non-sales) meetings usually started with a printed handout containing a spreadsheet or brief summary report. Then slowly PowerPoint was everywhere

  9. I just wanted to vote along with pheidole for “Teach Like a Champion.” Such a *useful* book.

    There are so many different ways to teach well, and one required step along the way is student engagement. When lectures (and non-lectures) fail, it’s only because students are’t engaged. If a change is implemented and it doesn’t increase engagement, then you wouldn’t predict any engagement. If a person is an quality lecturer who is capable of keeping students engaged that way, then that’s just fine! The real problem is people who think that they are engaging lecturers when they are not.

    • “:The real problem is people who think that they are engaging lecturers when they are not.”

      I’ve had a few of those lecturers myself!

      And I totally agree with your focus on engagement. My experience in the 600 student class with clickers (mixed with peer instruction), as I described I felt like the actual learning bump was real but not large. But the engagement bump was huge. It was just palpable – it went from the back half of the class reading newspapers and the front half slouching to everybody leaning forward (and still having 500 showing up at the end of the semester instead of say 200). And in a first year course that is supposed to be making students excited about their major, that is huge.

  10. Get out of my head Brian!

    Some anecdotes and impressions from my own experience (in a biology dept. at a large N. American public research university, for reference):

    -I think it’s fairly easy to use any teaching approach, including traditional lectures, to get the class up to some decent level on average. It’s not that hard to teach decently at the university level. It’s very hard to do better than decently–to get the average student substantially higher on Bloom’s taxonomy. You can tweak your approach (Brian’s point #5 is correct), or even do things totally differently than you used to, and not see any change in outcomes.

    -In classes where I don’t need many visuals besides those I can draw on the board, I just use the chalkboard. Besides obliging the students to take notes, it also forces me to not go too fast. If you use PowerPoint and just talk, it’s quite easy to outpace the students, because you can talk faster than they can write.

    -A question I’ve asked Meg in the past: to what extent is the apparent success of flipped classrooms due to them being a device for forcing students to spend more total time on the material than they otherwise would? That is, you’re forcing them to spend more time outside of class reading/watching background material than they would otherwise? Meg indicated that there’s a bit of pedagogical research that gets at this issue, but sounds like only a bit.

    -Other things I could say, but I found I was just repeating Brian…

  11. One related element deserves mention, and that is textbooks. I gave up on textbooks in my Intro Bio mega-lecture because I found those books to be unreadable–akin to the pedagogy of a 1995 web page–all chunked information loosely strung together. When the prof has difficulty understanding the “Topics to think about”, and “Applications in the Real World”, that spells trouble.

    Instead, in the last two iterations, I assigned three very complementary books:

    1) Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” (hardcover online $18, campus bookstore paperback $16)
    –Of the genre, combines the best writing, clearest exposition, with the least “angry evolutionist-tude” (I’m talkin’ bout you, RichardD).

    2) Hoagland’s “Exploring the Way Life Works” (new online $100, or at the campus bookstore)
    –A fascinating, mainly cartoon-illustrated guide to the 17 principles that describe life. Very first principles and anti-memorization.

    3) Schultz’s “The Stuff of Life” (new online for $10, or at the campus bookstore).
    –A graphic novel based on the premise of an explorer from a parthenogenic race that returns home to report on life on the planet Earth. The focus is on genetics, from mendelian to population.

    Note that students will be paying less than they would for a new textbook. And, here’s the thing, they actually *read* the books. Its amazing how much more fun teaching is when students read the book before lecture, and one way to increase those odds is to make the reading enjoyable. Books written for popular audiences are designed to be enjoyable (graphic novelists are adept at combining narrative and image: the Stuff of LIfe is pretty awesome, all told).

    Finally, the use of popular books dovetails nicely with an increased focus on depth over breadth, obviously. And it feels good to support professional science writers.

    • I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to teach intro biostats from the Cartoon Guide to Statistics, but decided that we just had to have a more formal text than that, so never seriously explored the idea.

  12. A few thoughts while I eat breakfast:
    1. Have you seen this post by Chris Buddle? http://teachingblog.mcgill.ca/2014/05/15/instructors-stop-putting-your-powerpoint-slides-on-line/
    2. I use somewhat of a hybrid, giving out slides but they are partial slides that need to be annotated.
    3. Depth vs. breadth: Absolutely, there’s a tradeoff! I have cut a lot of content, in part based on being convinced that students weren’t retaining it anyway. I focus a lot on process of science skills — how to read a figure, determine what an appropriate control is, etc. I cut a lot of content to do this. I’ve decided that I care much more that my students know, for example, that there are shared derived traits that can be used to infer relationships between organisms than that they know the particular shared derived traits of echinoderms.
    4. Bloom’s: I plan to Bloom’s my exams from this past semester vs. the time I taught Intro Bio before then. I am 100% certain that they are higher, but students did just as well. I think this is because the teaching I did last semester was more effective for my particular teaching goals, which do not include learning how to memorize. I think that, the time I taught before then, exams were hard because there was so much material to memorize.

  13. I have tried twice to partially ditch the powerpoint (in a 300-level Ecology class and a grad-level biostats class). I tried the hybrid approach (complex figures and equations only). By mid-semester I had gotten a great deal of pushback from the students and started posting full slides. In the grad course I had a large number of new international students who found that they simply did not have the language skills to make useful notes.

    These two courses were my first two teaching experiences. Six years later I wonder how many of the problems were related to my inexperience, and if it is time to revisit the experiment.

    • There is no doubt that there is a lot of push back from students about powerpoints. They’ve come to assume its a right. But to me this is perfect case of students don’t always know what is best for them (and why we shouldn’t let student evaluations run riot over assessment of teaching). The evidence on the benefits of note taking is rather substantial. And it just doesn’t happen when they have or are expecting powerpoint handouts. However, its probably not a coincidence that I started my experiments with abandoning powerpoint after getting tenure.

      Two more thoughts:
      1) Like so much about teaching, so much of the tone is set in the first couple of lectures. If they don’t even see a slide those first few lectures expectations change.
      2) Also like much of teaching, explaining what you’re doing and how you’re motivated by student learning and supported by data you’ll often get the benefit of the doubt. (Although I can say from experience just telling students how beneficial notetaking is and then handing them powerpoint slides has almost no effect).

  14. Pingback: Friday links: Oregon Trail vs. peer review, the Mr. T test, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  15. Pingback: How much do scientists lecture, and why? Poll results and commentary | Dynamic Ecology

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