Trent Needs a Radical Change in its Teaching Approach

It is time for a radical change in the teaching approach at Trent University.

The 2012-15 Academic Plan, Radical Recovery, refers to the desirability of “interactive pedagogy” or “interactive teaching” 13 times in its 92 pages, often in conjunction with the term “student-centred”.  “Interactive pedagogy” means different things to different people, but usually implies primarily student-student interaction.

This is best embodied in the “inverted classroom”, with a large body of research-based evidence that the approach is far superior to the traditional lecture for student learning.  In the inverted classroom, students review materials before class that would normally be presented in class, including a brief lecture (video-taped) and/or lecture notes (provided in advance) and any supplemental material.  Class time then focuses on student-student interaction, under the professor’s guidance, to develop the analytical and communication skills that used to be the role of the student outside of class only.  This is true interactive teaching with all students involved, not just the few that ask the prof questions.  We all know that the web is a wonderful source of factual knowledge (usually superior to a lecture in that we can review it if we get distracted or miss a point, and jump to related links), but it is person-to-person discussion that hones our analytical ability.  Why not customize our learning accordingly?

The evidence is clear that students do not develop analytical skills through lectures.  A meta-study by R.R. Hake showed this dramatically.  This study compared the performance of some 6000 students in introductory mechanics courses who were taught either by conventional lectures or through various forms of pedagogy involving significant student-student interaction in the classroom.  All groups were given a standard test of conceptual understanding at the end of the course.  The students taught interactively improved twice as much, on average, as those taught with lectures.

The same result has been shown recently at UBC when one group of students was  lectured by a professor acknowledged to be an outstanding lecturer, and another group taught by a teaching assistant given instruction on using interactive pedagogy.  When tested, the latter group performed twice as well as the lecture-taught students.  There seem to be fewer such studies available outside the science, but Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds, by R.J. Light shows that interactive teaching yields similar excellent results in all disciplines.

At Trent, the inverted classroom has been used in the intro-physics course since 1998, with the addition of “just-in-time” teaching which uses Blackboard (WebCT) to test the students on a few factual questions prior to each class, as a spur to do the readings.  An additional question asks “What part of the reading requires more clarification?”; the responses help the instructor set goals for the upcoming class.  In 2011, 92% of the students rated the interactive teaching as better or much better than a lecture approach.  One aspect of this interactive teaching, using “clickers” to record student responses to questions in class, has spread to 15 courses at Trent in 2012-13.

The inverted classroom is not new; it is the approach used in a typical arts seminar in which students are expected to come prepared to discuss the class material.  In Trent’s early years, most of its teaching was done this way, because of its pedagogical strength.  Unfortunately, as Trent’s enrollment grew it became impossible to offer as many labour-intensive seminars, although the English and History Departments, and some other instructors, have fought to retain this mode in as many courses as possible.

However, with modern technology the option of small-group discussion and feedback in large classes is now possible.  For example, Professor Mitch Champagne, in his courses for Trent’s School of Education, projects at the front of the classroom a blog he has written that raises questions about the reading for the day, and the students discuss these with their immediate neighbours and reply to the blog using (wireless) laptops or smart-phone text messages.  Again, all students are involved in the conversation, and continue it as new responses appear.  When enough replies are posted, Mitch discusses them and provides the synthesis, with the students already having done the spadework to appreciate his input.  Mitch then moves to the next part of his blog.

There is now commercial software available to facilitate this approach, including Top Hat Monocle and HotSeat.  Professor Champagne and other users report that students are clearly engaged by the approach: they post as much to the blog after class as during it!  One user reported that his class average improved a full grade with this approach.  And students are using their electronic devices to participate in the class instead of texting their friends.

The approach can be a difficult one for some professors, who have trouble giving up the control that lecturing provides.  Ideas emerge that the instructor did not anticipate and sometimes the prof has to say “I don’t have a good answer.  I’ll have to reply in the next class.”  This emphasizes that knowledge is created, not just found on the web.  The approach can also be difficult for some students, who are used to memorization and regurgitation rather than original thought.  They complain that “The professor is expecting me to teach myself.”  The response is “Yes, that is what university learning is about.”.

Finally, the introduction of free on-line university courses by MIT-Harvard’s edX  (now with the option of a proctored final exam to verify the student’s identity) and the Stanford-led Coursera consortium of universities, is now providing courses which are superior to most lecture courses.  If Trent is to compete, it must take full advantage of its potential for direct student-student interaction which is where, combined with individual work, most of student learning actually takes place.  This does not imply a dilution of the role of the professor in the course.  Rather, professors must use their expertise in the multiple challenges of guide, facilitator and synthesizer, and still be prepared to give extemporaneous mini-lectures based on the class needs at the moment.  These allow professors to showcase their real talents, and not act primarily as conduits of knowledge.

Trent is approaching its 50th anniversary in 2014.  It is time that Trent returned to its roots with the best teaching possible.  We are already part way there, and we now have the technology for the inverted classroom.  Let’s use it.

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