Karen Wootton, Director of Curriculum and Assessment
I would not be surprised to learn that many CPM teachers have heard that question about college preparedness from parents. Maybe from colleagues as well. It is valid question, and it usually does not stem from a concern over skills and facts, but rather whether students will be able to handle the lectures at college.
Most people think of “lecture” when they think about teaching in university classrooms. What made you want to move away from that approach?
For most of my career as a university professor, I have taught science courses that were entirely lecture-based. Such teaching relies heavily, if not exclusively, on passive learning. That is, the learner sits in a classroom filled with other students listening to an instructor (i.e., the sage on the stage). Such pedagogy promotes teacher centeredness, passive solitary learning, and a quiet classroom. Studies have shown that the attention span of students in lecture-based courses quickly wanes within the first few minutes of class and that students retention of material taught by lectures is weak. Another major disadvantage of such teacher-centered pedagogy is its limited ability to teach in a manner that fits the wide spectrum of how students learn. That is, some students are auditory learners, while others are visual or kinesthetic learners. Lecture-based courses only connect well with auditory learners. Furthermore, knowledge is not something that can be transmitted from instructor to student. Rather, instructors can only guide their students in the construction of a knowledge base, and often this requires that students struggle on their own, as well as within groups, with course-related readings and worksheets. For these reasons, I found lecture-based or teacher-centered pedagogy largely unsuccessful and unfulfilling as a university professor.
Please describe your new approach.
My new approach is one that many other university instructors are now using in the classroom for diverse subjects, not just science. It is called active learning. Active learning is a model of instruction that focuses the responsibility of learning on the learners and engages learners in educational “tasks” during classroom time. These “tasks” can include case studies, class discussion, think-pair-share, student debate, or reaction to a video. Active learning promotes learner centeredness, active participation, collaborative learning, and a busy classroom. Such a learner-centered pedagogy can leverage use of the internet not only for distributing learning materials but also for putting learners in control of their own learning as they move at their own pace through the online material. Here, a course website can be used to deliver reading materials (e.g., textbook, syllabus notes) and audiovisual learning aids (e.g., videos, slideshows with audio overlay). During the time students are working on course material outside of class, they are establishing their knowledge base. In contrast, classroom time is used for collaborative exercises, where learners in groups begin a knowledge application phase that stimulates higher-order thinking (e.g., problem solving, critical analysis). Instructors act more as facilitators of the learning experience and that requires a switch from being a lecturer to being a discussion leader. Unlike teacher-centered pedagogy, active learning can serve all learners— auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Furthermore, active learning fits well with adult learning theory which is centered on the idea that adults learn best in an environment that is problem-based and collaborative. Lastly, active learning approaches empower the learner and encourage them to become lifelong learners!
Was there some resistance to this new approach?
The only resistance I observed initially was from the students. Active-learning was new to them, and they felt a little outside of their comfort zone. University students are so used to lecture-based instruction, especially in the sciences, that they had a hard time understanding the usefulness of such a pedagogy. Also, active learning requires students to perform more written work outside of class as they must complete open-ended problem sets prior to, as well as after, classroom sessions.
I learned early on while adopting a learner-centered pedagogy that I had to obtain student “buy-in” early in the course— starting with the very first day of instruction. That is, I had to convince students that active learning works and that it can also be a fun way to learn. After all learning should not be a chore, it should be something that students enjoy.
What did you lose by moving to this approach?
The only thing that I lost was the urge to lecture to students and that’s a good thing!
What did you gain?
I regained my love of teaching! As I said previously, I never found lecture-based courses fulfilling as an instructor. It was too hard to connect with the students and help them construct their knowledge base. I should emphasize that I have not given up lectures completely in my science courses. However, I have reduced the number of lectures in my courses tremendously, and I have modified the lectures that I do give to require more student engagement/interaction. Also, for the most part I have thrown out my Powerpoint slides, and I teach using a whiteboard and colored markers. Remember in a learner-centered classroom, the students must come to class prepared to participate, even during lecture, and the instructor must get the students engaged.
What did students gain?
Based on evaluations of the most recent course (advanced physiology), the students expressed overwhelming support for active-learning. The course was targeted primarily to upper division undergraduates wishing to become health science professionals (e.g., physicians, dentists, and veterinarians). They felt that the course engaged them, connected them with their peers and the instructor, and gave them greater flexibility to learn the way that was best for them. Most important, the students felt the course helped to develop their problem solving and critical thinking skills and deepened their understanding of physiology. All of this will help with retention of the course material.
How have you seen an impact on student success?
It is still a little early for me to see the impact on student success beyond my new undergraduate course, but my course teaches many of the same topics that I have been teaching medical students for over 20 years. I am convinced that my undergraduate students moving on to medical school will do well in their first year physiology course.
What are students saying about this new approach?
I have been pleasantly surprised at the student reaction to active learning in my advanced physiology course. Based on the course evaluations, the students said the course increased their willingness to put forth an effort to complete the learning activities, increased their interest in the course topics, and importantly, helped them think more critically about the course material. The students agreed that the course deepened their understanding of the underlying concepts and principles. Lastly, the students felt that the course led to a way of interacting that was exciting, fun, and enhanced the learning experience.
Here is what some of the students said about my advanced physiology course:
This class really stimulated my critical thinking.
This course is extremely challenging and engaging.
Thank you to Professor Payne for taking the time to respond and work with me on this article. In the March newsletter, we will share the responses from a professor at another university who is moving away from the lecture format. If you hear questions about CPM students being ready for college, share this and the next article. It might open some eyes!