Classes begin again on Monday. Wednesday I lecture to 200 students. We teach many of these large courses. Providing instruction to large numbers of students who are required to take our “service” courses is expected of our department and there is no practical way to handle this demand without meeting in large groups. What is under dispute, if I understand the “new” critics, is what should happen when these large numbers of students meet.

First, there have been variations on what is described as “flipping the classroom”. This may mean different things to different people, but I take it to mean that students should first encounter “information” before coming to class (read the book, watch an online video) and then spend class time “discussing” what they have learned (or not) with the instructor. There are certainly many sources for “recorded” lectures with many institutions offering their lecture content online and many ways for any of us to record and post content.

A recent and it would appear related ripple swept through the online circles many of us are part of because of an NPR spot based on the method of a Harvard physics instructor (Eric Mazur). The concern in this case seems to be that physics students have focused on the procedural methods to solve required problems but have not developed conceptual understanding. Mazur proposes that small groups of students within a large class discuss challenging questions and then report. Again, learn the basics outside of the lecture hall and use the FTF time to discuss under instructor supervision and direction.

I have commented on this general issue previously. Somewhere else in my posts I indicate that the lecture method has long been questioned, indicating that Fred Keller in 1968 authored a paper titled “Goodbye teacher” again arguing that the lecture was not effective. Keller’s argument was somewhat different suggesting that the lecture was unresponsive to individual needs proposing that “mastery” quizzes, reading material, and tutors provided a more adaptive approach.

I have been trying to think through what I think the underlying mechanisms and problems involved in this discussion might be. I think there may be several. The first issue may be that not enough time is not committed to learning. By expecting students to work with online lecture content outside of class time AND then spend class time processing content, the time devoted to learning is increased.

The concern that the presentation of content does not encourage “deep understanding” seems different. Posing challenging questions can certainly be part of any presentation so the key addition in the Mazur method would seem to be the small group discussion. Somehow, this approach assumes that background knowledge is acquired without presentation or at least with far less time devoted to presentation (I suppose from the textbook) and the time previously allocated for explanation or the presentation of unique information is better spent by engaging students in discussion.

There are many issues to parse here and perhaps different ways to respond if the key issues and benefits can be identified. I wonder if the content area matters. I would bet the “concept density” among classes varies greatly with, for example, physics introducing far fewer concepts than say Intro psych, but introducing concepts that may be more difficult for students. I would have predicted that the procedural skills (problem solving) involved in what I thought happened in physics classes was the most difficult challenge for students. Perhaps when the time required to describe concepts is brief but the abstractness of the concepts difficult to penetrate, discussion or some form of grappling with the “big ideas” would be a more productive use of time. When the number of concepts is large, but based in conceptual models that can be easily interpreted, then class time might best be spent presenting these concepts with basic explanations.

I also wonder about the motivational issue. For example, would it be even more efficient to provide students conceptual challenges to discuss before or after more traditional classes. Do students need to have the instructor in the same room to engage in group discussion? What has happened to the concept of students organizing “study groups”? Is it possible that requiring discussion during class time is a way to assure that discussion happens?

BTW – our Intro Psych classes do set aside time for “discussion”. In our Intro classes, we lecture twice a week and students meet in smaller groups with a graduate student group leader once a week. This seems a compromise approach that has been in place for generations and seems reasonable if my interpretation of the content area I address as expecting that students deal with a large number of relatively easy to comprehend concepts is accurate.

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