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.

By Doug Ward

My trips to the office of Paul Jess often seemed liked counseling sessions.

I was a master’s student at KU in 1990, and I’d go to Jess’s office with a stream of problems: My students weren’t responding as well as I’d hoped, and some even seemed hostile toward me in the classroom. My thesis wasn’t going as well as I’d expected, and I didn’t know where to begin a search for doctoral programs.

It all seemed so grave then (and seems so innocuous now).

Jess would lean back in his office chair, fold his hands over his bulging stomach, and listen intently. Then he’d smile and nod and explain what I could to do.Teaching Matters Nov. 13 2013

He could be surly, even crotchety, but he had nothing but patience and sound advice when I visited his office. He had a magic filing cabinet that seemed to contain solutions for every possible problem I had in class, and he was ever generous in sharing anything and everything. The folders from that filing cabinet, accompanied by his sage advice, always calmed my nerves and saved me from embarrassment with my students.

Jess never understood why I wanted to be a professor. In nearly every conversation we had, he’d try to dissuade me by explaining all the problems he saw in academia: the long hours, the stacks of grading, the troublesome students, the even more troublesome colleagues, the endless committee meetings, the out-of-whack research expectations, and an academic culture that gave lip service but little reward to high-quality teaching.

When I insisted that I knew what I was getting into, he would shake his head and sigh. Then, like the mentor he was, he’d point me in a direction where I could find my own answers, experience my own failures, and achieve my own successes.

I thought of Jess when I read this month’s issue of Teaching Matters, which focuses on the challenges of graduate education and on the importance of mentoring.

Here’s what you’ll find:

Judy Eddy writes about a paradox that often exists in graduate education.

Dan Bernstein writes about tailoring graduate programs to meet the expectations and aspirations of students and the needs of the university. This includes opportunities for students to develop their teaching in addition to their research.

Ann Martinez speaks with Angela Lumpkin, Susan Lunte and Charles Eldredge and some of their former students about the importance of mentoring.

Lumpkin, a professor of health, sport, and exercise sciences, explains in an interview with Martinez that a mentor must treat each graduate student uniquely, “setting high standards, but then working with them to achieve those standards.”

Reading her words makes me realize how much good mentors have in common.


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

By Doug Ward

Lecturing as an educational form emerged at a time of scarce information and oral culture. It’s a top-down method of conveying information that under the right circumstances can be quite effective, especially at motivating listeners.Teaching matters cover_Page_1

For many students, though, the lecture can seem like more of an endurance test than a learning experience. In a world of abundant information, lecturing is usually not the best method to help students learn. Many faculty members have long suspected as much, and research has been bearing that out.

The latest edition of Teaching Matters from the Center for Teaching Excellence looks at a movement at KU to shift away from traditional lecture. Among the articles you’ll find:

  • Judy Eddy on KU’s efforts to provide deeper learning for students
  • Dan Bernstein on the challenges of changing the culture of teaching
  • Bob Goldstein and Ann Martinez on a new program that is using post-doctoral researchers to help faculty members transform gateway courses
  • Andrea Greenhoot on a new community of faculty members, graduate assistants and postdocs working across disciplines to improve KU courses

Look for Teaching Matters in your campus mailbox. You can also find it online at the CTE website.

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