Jen Roberts geology class
Jennifer Roberts walks through the lecture hall during her geology class, above and bottom, working with students on collaborative problem-solving. Several teaching assistants also help in the classroom.

By Doug Ward

Jennifer Roberts first noticed the difference a few years ago in Geology 101.

The course regularly draws 300 or more students a semester, and Roberts, an associate professor of geology, was teaching in much the same way she had since she took over the course in 2002: lecture and exam.Teaching matters box2, spring 2015

Problem was, exam scores were dropping, she said, and as she interacted with students, she found that they had less understanding of the material than students had had just two or three years before.

So Roberts set out to transform the class, which is now called The Way the Earth Works, into an active learning format, with in-class group work, student presentations, clicker questions aimed at prompting discussions, and lots of interactions with students. With the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, she began moving away from what Bitting calls the “fire-hose approach” to teaching and concentrating on helping students learn core skills through hands-on activities.

Research has long cast doubt on the use of lecture in education. Donald Bligh, in his book What’s the Use of Lecture?, provides some of the most compelling evidence, reviewing more than 200 college-level courses in several disciplines. The biggest benefit of lecture is that it is an efficient means of reaching a large number of students in a single setting. Bligh argues that lectures can be useful in conveying information but that they do little to promote thought or problem-solving abilities, or to change behavior. Rather, they reinforce ideas, values, and habits that students have already accepted.

Students work in groups during Geology 101, discussing ways to solve problems.
Students work in groups during Geology 101, discussing ways to solve problems.

Despite the evidence about lecture’s weaknesses, two-thirds to three-quarters of faculty members continue to rely it, according to research summarized by Derek Bok of Harvard in his book Our Underachieving Colleges. As Bok argues, though, facts, theories, and concepts delivered in lecture have little value unless students can apply them to new situations, ask pertinent questions, make reasoned judgments, and arrive at meaningful conclusions.

Bitting urges instructors to think about it this way: “You may have a lecture that works to get students to take a multiple choice test really effectively,” she said. “But when you have a conversation with that student after your semester, they may not actually remember anything. Or they may not know how to make sense of it outside of the context of the little paragraph in the textbook where they read it the first time.”

Transforming a class, especially a large lecture class, isn’t easy. Roberts has essentially applied the scientific method to her teaching of Geology 101, experimenting with a variety of techniques. Some have failed; others have succeeded. “There has been a lot struggle but also self-reflection on my process and then on the learning process in general,” she said.

Jen Roberts' biology class
Roberts often sketches during class, having students create their own drawings, below right, and fill in areas that Roberts asks about.

Roberts said her experience with active learning in a large class had forced her to step away from the class material and recognize that students “are not me.”

“They don’t learn like I do,” she said. “And that’s OK. But my job is to have them learn, so I need to think about what’s the best to have everybody do the best they can and to learn.”Jen Roberts' biology class, 12-4-14 (49) - Copy

The adjustments in an active learning class can be difficult for students, as well. As Catherine Sloan writes in Change magazine, millennials “have a deep fear of failure,” so getting them to take intellectual risks takes patience. Nor do they deal well with ambiguity. They like clear, firm solutions to academic problems, and pushing them to think beyond a single “right answer” also takes work from instructors.

Tradition has also made changing the format of classes more challenging. Students have grown accustomed to sitting passively in lectures, reviewing instructors’ notes or slides posted online, attending study sessions (again, passively), cramming for exams, and moving on. Many resent having to take an active role in class – isn’t that the professor’s job? – and in their learning in general.

Even so, many students find the expectations of their professors lower than they had anticipated. Sloan writes that “the most common complaint we hear from students is not that their professors are too demanding but that they don’t hold firmly to deadlines and expectations.”

Bitting also urges instructors to look more broadly at student learning.

“Even if your lecture is working really well for getting your students to take a multiple choice test, if they’re not excited about it and they don’t care about it when they leave, maybe you’re not doing the job you want to do,” she said.

Jen Roberts' biology class, 12-4-14 (30)


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Active learning helps students learn in deep, meaningful ways, as study after study has shown.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. On the contrary, students who have grown accustomed to sitting through lectures with one eye on their phones and one foot out the door often rebel at changing to hands-on exercises, in-class discussion among dozens or hundreds of students, peer learning, group projects, and other techniques that force them from their seats.

Alison Olcott Marshall, who, with the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, has transformed an undergraduate paleontology class for non-majors into an active-learning format, found out first hand last semester how difficult it can be.

“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were like, ‘Lady, you’re crazy,’” Olcott Marshall said.

She persisted, though, transforming a 100-level paleontology course that had long been a “romp through all the fossil organisms that had been found” into one with a narrower focus aimed at engaging students in the scientific process. The culmination of the craziness was an event called Paleocon, a public display of group projects that students worked on in lieu of taking a final exam. The goal was to synthesize paleontological topics in a way that students and their peers could understand, Olcott Marshall said, as the video above explains.

One of Olcott Marshall’s students, Ian Rhoads, described the class as “a very guided, hands-on learning process.”

“Ms. Olcott Marshall is really good at making sure that we’re all on track,” he said.

Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.
Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.

Another student, Miranda Mitchell, said she was “shocked having to be in a group and do so much group work.” She warmed to the process, though, saying, “It’s very cool to get to talk with someone every day and get to know people on a different level than you would anywhere else.”

Alex Tait, a photography major, worked in a group with a theater major (Annie Fuquay) and a business major (Wesley Riedmiller). She said the class format pushed students to take on research on their own rather than just read about it and listen to it described.

“We’re artsy kinds of people, so to this type of opportunity really motivates us to want to learn the information and apply it things that interest us as opposed to just being in the library and studying and then going and taking a test,” she said.

Olcott Marshall saw the results, as well. As she walked amid the dozen or so student displays at Paleocon, she and her students were clearly energized. Pushing through the students’ skepticism about this crazy active learning approach had clearly paid off.

“Now they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I see why I had to work,’ ” Olcott Marshall said.

By Doug Ward

Will students one day piece together their own degrees by assembling courses a la carte from a variety of colleges and universities?

Derek Newton of the Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, says no. Writing in The Atlantic, Newton argues that technology won’t force the “unbundling” of degrees and programs in higher education the way it has the music industry and cable TV.

The American Enterprise Institute, among others, contends that technology indeed will force higher education to change its existing model of “bundled services” like degrees, dorms, food services, recreation centers and the whole idea of a “college experience.” Rising costs already force most families to choose colleges based on price, making institutions vulnerable to outside competitors that can find ways of reducing costs while still providing the desired services, according to this reasoning.

The music industry and cable television have long relied on a bundling model. Songs are bundled into albums, which can be sold at higher prices; programs are bundled into expensive cable packages. Apple, among others, forced music companies to allow consumers to buy individual songs, and services like Hulu have given viewers control over when and how they watch TV programs and movies.

block windows with abstract patterns in reflection
Doug Ward

Newton agrees that higher education has not kept up with technology. He says, though, that a widespread breakup of higher education’s courses and services simply won’t happen. That’s because students and parents look at higher education in an entirely different way than they look at media, he says. “They shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

Newton offers a good counterargument to the idea of unbundling. What he overlooks, though, is that once students begin their education, they do indeed shop for professors. Word of mouth and sites like Rate My Professor point students toward some classes and instructors and away from others. Similarly, many students take online classes at other colleges and universities to save money or to avoid in-person classes they see as onerous. (University administrators refer to this as “leakage.”)

Students make choices about higher education based on the reputation of individual programs within a university, as well as a university’s overall reputation. They haven’t shown interest in abandoning college or university identity for a generic major, though, as in patching together a degree on their own from dozens of individual classes at dozens of universities.

Colleges and universities are indeed vulnerable, though, if they don’t prove their worth to students and parents. That must start by putting a greater emphasis on student learning and helping students see the value of courses, programs and degrees, and then move more quickly into a variety of areas:

  • Course options that break away from the three-hour, in-your-seat lecture.
  • An emphasis on critical thinking and adaptation of ideas instead of memorized facts.
  • Clear explanations about why individual courses and topics matter and how they fit into a degree.
  • Incentives for and recognition of innovative teaching.
  • Approaches in which universities unbundle – yes, unbundle – their own degrees and then rebundle them into smaller packages like certificates that recognize achievements in learning but that don’t require dozens or hundreds of hours of course time.

That’s just a start. Newton is right that a great unbundling is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Critics are right, too, in that universities must change – soon.

Steps in the right direction

Diana Stepner of the education services company Pearson has declared 2015 “the year of the learner,” arguing that “the future of education will be created by learners themselves.”

That’s great news if we can help make it happen. Writing in Wired magazine, Stepner describes a world in which engaged students take an active role in their learning, help shape educational programs, and delve into learning with gusto.

I’m not buying into the “year of the learner” hype, but Stepner makes good points about the future of education. I see no signs that we are on the cusp of a dramatic, immediate change, but education is – and must continue – taking incremental steps to make education more learner-centered. (See above.)

Briefly …

An analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education finds that enrollment of international students has soared at public colleges and universities in the U.S. but that those students are not taking spots that would have gone to in-state students. …. Writing in Educause, Holly E. Morris and Greg Warman offer ideas on how higher education might use design thinking. … Writing in Good magazine, Rosie Spinks says that “libraries in the world’s major cities seem poised for a comeback, though it’s one that has very little to do with books.”


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The note cards I handed out to students in my hybrid class last week drew astonished looks.

Each contained a hand-written list of three things: events, people, animals, objects, locations, movies, songs, television shows. All were random, created one evening in a stream of consciousness. For instance:notecards showing groupings of items for the class exercise

“Eye of the Tiger”

Eye of a needle

Arctic Ocean

and

Fire alarms

Fairy tales

Calvin Klein

“Here’s the fun part,” I told students. “Find a connection among the three things.”

That’s where the astonishment came in.

The main goal of the exercise was to help students synthesize, to open their eyes to connections they might not otherwise see and to creative solutions they might not otherwise consider. They worked in pairs, and once they got beyond the initial “I can’t do this” shock, they generally came up with excellent answers.

After the exercise, one student asked a question that surprised me, even though it shouldn’t have.

“What’s the right answer?” she asked.

After wincing, I said there was no right answer to any of the postcard triads. Then I recited one of my educational mantras to all the students:

“There are no right answers in this class,” I said. “There are better answers. But there are no right answers.”

That’s a hard concept to grasp for students who focus far too much on a grade and a diploma rather than on learning. Ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable, and many have been taught that there are indeed right answers in their classes.

In some disciplines there are, of course, though even in those the understanding of the process is more important than any single answer.

I teach a class called Infomania, which is intended to help students become better researchers and to help them learn to solve problems with information and digital tools. I also try to help students work their way through ambiguity. Pushing them to find a link between fire alarms, fairy tales and Calvin Klein is part of that. So is working in groups, developing individual and group projects, and other approaches that emphasize active learning.

I thought about sharing some of the students’ creative responses to my nonsensical challenge but decided that wouldn’t be fair. You, dear reader, must work through that ambiguity on your own.

Remember, there are no right answers.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A new study suggests that all students gain when a lecture moves to an active learning format but that black students show even larger gains than white students, Ainissa Ramirez explains in an article for Edutopia.

Empty lecture hall
Photo by Doug Ward

The study examined results from a 400-person biology class at the University of North Carolina over six semesters. It found that black students scored better on tests after working in the active learning format. It also found that they were more likely to ask questions when a class used that format, which involved guided reading and pre-class exercises, team assignments in class, and discussion.

We’ve known for decades that lecture is the least effective means of helping students learn. The study’s authors suggest that lecture falls especially short for black students, saying that it is part of an educational system that has long catered to students who are primarily white and upper middle class. Edutopia goes as far as to ask, “Is Lecturing Culturally Biased?”

Drawing sweeping conclusions from a single study would be foolish. The North Carolina study, which you’ll find here, certainly raises intriguing questions, though, and offers yet another reason to move away from lecture.

Making online course materials easier to find

Well-designed courses are worthless if students can’t find the materials and information they need for learning.

That seems like a no-brainer, but far too many instructors don’t pay attention to how students will look for course material. As Karla Gutierrez of the Shift eLearning Blog explains, effective communication in a course makes all the difference in success or failure.

Gutierrez offers these tips for cutting down on confusion:

  • Keep things clear and simple. That applies to both the design and the instructions.
  • Make the technology invisible. That is, design course materials so that students can find them intuitively and don’t have to do lots of searching. Or, as Gutierrez puts it, “don’t make learners think.”
  • Focus attention. That can be done with images, color, text and other means. The key is to use course design to lead students to the proper material.

I’d add one important element to that list: Ask students. Their feedback can prove invaluable.

Briefly …

Edudemic offers 15 lesson plans intended to help students become better online researchers. … Educational Technology and Mobile Learning offers a list of operators for refining Twitter searches. … Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers offers a useful chart comparing 11 mindmapping tools.Time magazine writes about a survey in which college graduates said their biggest regret was not doing a better job of planning and managing debt. … The Hechinger Report and U.S. News & World Report write about the only two states that have increased per-student spending on higher education in the last few years: North Dakota and Alaska.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Two recent surveys help illustrate the barriers that block much-needed changes in teaching, learning and course design at colleges and universities.

In one, conducted by Gallup for Inside HigherEd, most full-time faculty members saw little value in online courses and took an even bleaker view of online courses at their own institutions. The survey found that only 24 percent of full-time faculty members agreed or strongly agreed that online courses could lead to the same level of learning as in-person courses. That fell to 13 percent for their own institutions.

WP_20141122_14_46_26_Pro
Photo by Doug Ward

Another recent survey, this one by the Higher Education Research Institute, found that adoption of online courses was growing, although only 17.4 percent of faculty members said they had taught an online course. At public universities, that number was nearly 10 points higher, though.

Online courses are simply one piece of a much larger structural change. Learning is shifting away from a mountaintop model in which students learn primarily from an instructor with rare information to a collaborative or multifaceted model in which students learn in many different ways, including in online environments. Ubiquitous access to information has made the how and the why of most subjects far more important than the what.

Rather than approaching change with a mindset of helping students, though, far too many instructors, especially those with tenure, simply dismiss calls for active learning as unworkable and unachievable. That, too, is reflected in the Gallup/Inside HigherEd poll, as 62 percent of respondents were age 50 or older. As the survey put it, the responses “may hint at generational effects,” as older faculty members are often slower to adopt new techniques and new technologies.

The HERI survey does show a heartening increase in student-centered teaching approaches like use of small groups, student-selected topics and group projects. Use of those approaches has risen nearly 20 percent over the last 25 years, the survey said. Use of extensive lecturing also showed a slight increase over the last three years, though, with half of faculty saying they use lecturing extensively in their classes.

The upshot of these surveys is that we still have a long way to go in persuading colleagues about the value of active learning and of trying new approaches (if online courses can really be considered new). That’s unfortunate, given the rising use of active learning in K-12 schools.

The most recent NMC Horizon report on K-12 education indicates that use of techniques like project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and other approaches that emphasize “learning by doing” and allow students to move deeper into topics is growing quickly. So is experimentation with technology and a shift of teachers’ primary role to that of mentor.

Students in those programs have many choices in where they go to college. Institutions that adapt will have a clear advantage in attracting students. Those that don’t will find themselves on the end of an uncomfortable question from prospective students and their parents: Why?


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Forget the technology. Instead, focus on the humanity.

That’s the advice of Kirstin Wilcox, a lecturer at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Wilcox isn’t anti-technology. Rather, she says, learning technology generally means something that helps deliver class material for large lecture classes, not something that helps students understand literary texts in small classes.

Once-novel technologies like wikis, blogs or online discussions have become passé among students, who see them as yet another form of rote learning, she says, adding: “It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts.”

Classroom blurred with robot
Photo: Doug Ward

I agree. Education works best when instructors make a human connection with students. Innovations in delivery systems shouldn’t be cast aside, though. They provide a means for shifting material outside of class and allowing instructors to spend precious class time on areas that need and deserve the most attention. If done right, it can allow for even more of the human connection that Wilcox espouses. Technology can also help students see texts in a new light by helping them find and visualize patterns. Multimedia tools also provide new vistas for allowing students to explain their thinking.

So, yes, work at making classes more human. Work at making connections with students. Work at helping students learn in a deeper way. Those are essential components of good teaching. But don’t dismiss technology. It will never replace the thinking of a thoughtful instructor, but it can often enhance engagement and learning.

A bleak report on college enrollment

Nearly 40 percent of public universities and 45 percent of private colleges expect enrollment to drop next year, The Hechinger Report says. That means budget cuts lie ahead. A fourth of all universities expect their revenues to decline, Hechinger says, based on an analysis by Moody’s, the bond rating company. It expects those in the Midwest and Northeast to be the hardest hit. That doesn’t bode well for Kansas, where tax cuts have already drained state coffers and funding for higher education continues to slide.

Briefly …

Pete Burkholder writes about the challenges instructors encounter in trying to get students to look at sources of information more skeptically … Only a third of recent graduates say they had a college internship that allowed them to apply the skills they were learning in college, according to a new Gallup-Purdue poll. … Pete Smith, president of the Open College at Kaplan University, predicts that students’ ability to understand how learning has changed them will grow in importance.

Tech tools

A Google Sheets plugin called Flubaroo helps automate grading of multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes and tests. The plugin, which is free, also makes for easy analysis of grades. … Tim Slade of Articulate shares three helpful tips for working with images in PowerPoint, including the program’s ability to remove backgrounds from photos.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Sylvia Manning offers an insightful characterization of a college education that summarizes the challenges all of us in higher education face today. In a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, she writes:

The reality is that no one can guarantee the results of an educational process, if only because a key element is how the student engages in that process. The output or outcome measures that we have are crude and are likely to remain so for considerable time to come. For example, the percentage of students who graduate from an institution tells us next to nothing about the quality of the education those students received.

Poster that says "Just because kids know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, and Instragram doesn't mean they how how to use technology to enhance their learning."
A good message about students and technology from Sean Junkins, via Twitter: http://bit.ly/1yFYfY5

Manning is right. In a piece for Inside HigherEd last year, I argued that students and administrators had become too caught up in the idea of education as a product. Far too many students see a diploma, rather than the learning that goes into it, as their primary goal. I tell students that I can’t make them learn. My job is to provide the environment and the guidance to help them learn. They have to decide for themselves whether they want to take advantage of the resources I provide – and to what degree. Only after they do that can learning take place.

Colleges and universities face a similar conundrum. They have come under increasing pressure to provide ways to measure their effectiveness. As Manning says, though, they have struggled to find effective ways to do that. Most focus on graduation rates and point to the jobs their graduates get. Many, like KU, are working at decreasing the number of students who drop or fail classes. Those are solid goals, but they still don’t tell us anything about what students have learned.

I’m not convinced that we can do that we can truly do that at a university level, at least not in the form of simplistic numeric data that administrators and legislators seem to want. There’s no meaningful way to show that student learning grew X percent this semester or that critical thinking increased at a rate of X over four years, although critics of higher education argue otherwise.

A portfolio system seems the best bet. It provides a way for students to show the work they have done during their time in college and allows them to make their own case for their learning. Portfolios also provide a means for students to demonstrate their potential to employers. By sampling those portfolios, institutions can then get a broad overview of learning. With rubrics, they can create a statistic, but the real proof is still qualitative rather than quantitative.

As an instructor, I see far more value in the nuances of portfolios, projects and assignments than I do in the rigid numerical data of tests and quizzes. Until that thinking gains a wider acceptance, though, we’ll be stuck chasing graduation rates and the like rather than elevating what really matters: learning.

A defense of liberal arts, along with a challenge

Without a backbone of liberal arts, science and technology lack the ability to create true breakthroughs. That’s what Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, argues in The Hechinger Report. Botstein makes a strong case, but he also issues a stinging rebuke to programs that refuse to innovate.

“Students come to college interested in issues and questions, and ready to tackle challenges, not just to “major” in a subject, even in a scientific discipline,” Botstein writes. “…What do we so often find in college? Courses that correspond to narrow faculty interests and ambitions, cast in terms defined by academic discourse, not necessarily curiosity or common sense.”

Bravo!

He argues for fundamental changes in curricula and organization of faculty, but also in the way courses are taught. The only aspect of education “that is truly threatened by technology is bad teaching, particularly lecturing,” he says. Instead, technology has expanded opportunities for learning but has done nothing to diminish the need for discussion, argument, close reading and speculation. He calls for renewed attention in helping students learn to use language and to use liberal arts to help students become literate in the sciences.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Botstein’s comparison of teaching and learning to sex, along with the slightly sensational but certainly eye-grabbing headline that accompanied his article: “Learning is like sex, and other reasons the liberal arts will remain relevant.”

Related: At Liberal Arts Colleges, Debate About Online Courses Is Really About Outsourcing (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Briefly …

College instructors are integrating more discussions and group projects into their teaching as they cut down on a lecture-only approach, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. … David Gooblar of PedagogyUnbound offers advice on handling the seemingly never-ending task of grading … Stuart Butler of the Brookings Institution suggests ways to “lower crazy high college costs.” They include providing better information to students, revamping accreditation, and allowing new models of education to compete with existing universities.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.