Redefining the College Lecture (Dialogues Recap)

November 29, 2017

Wide shot of panel and audience for Redefining the College Lecture

At our first teaching dialogue of the semester, 30-40 people gathered to discuss different strategies for teaching large courses. The conversation ranged from the philosophical to the practical, and included a debate about how we measure and value engagement vs. content acquisition vs. learning. In between panelists’ remarks, moderator Lynn Tran (Lawrence Hall of Science) led participants in small-group reflection activities that had the room buzzing with activity.

Michelle Douskey (Chemistry) kicked off the panel by describing her evolution as an instructor--noting that teaching, like learning, grows in leaps, not in a linear fashion. Douskey credits professional development opportunities such as the Transforming STEM Teaching Faculty Learning Program (run by Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lawrence Hall of Science) with helping her develop as an instructor and sparking her interest in faculty development.

In her introductory chemistry courses, Douskey has moved away from “cookbook” labs (where students follow a set of prescribed procedures to reproduce predictable results) to having students investigate their own questions. She uses iClicker, active learning questions, and flipped classroom techniques, and focuses on green chemistry and sustainable practices to connect course content to real-world problem solving.

Douskey emphasized the importance of opportunities for self-reflection and dialogue with other faculty and experts in learning, to “making choices that are going to work.” She also raised key questions to consider before introducing new ideas in the classroom: Are learning objectives clear? Do students and GSIs have the skills they need to be successful? What milestones are important and how will you intervene?

Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice) began his comments with a picture of the bike he learned to ride as a child, reminding us that learning is an embodied, physical experience. Niemeyer tries to bring materiality into both his in-person and online courses through a combination of what he calls friction and fuel: designing assignments that require interpretation and personalization by students, creating a supportive community, and leveraging collective knowledge and exchange to “make the network speak.”

Niemeyer sums up his goals and approach thus: learning < engagement < transformation, and provided a few illustrative examples drawn from a recent class.

Terry Johnson (Bioengineering) recalls his own undergraduate experience as being inundated with more information than he could learn, having the right answer about 2% of the time, and trying to hide his ignorance 98% of the time. To change the dynamic in his own teaching (which still includes lecture), he employs five tactics:

  1. Engage everybody. Call on everyone, pull out multiple names from the roster. This keeps students accountable but also helps develop a class climate where everyone is contributing to the learning process.

  2. Enable peer to peer learning. Create structured groups and then change them. Build team assignments. This has many benefits, including preventing students who are struggling from isolating themselves and falling behind.

  3. Do less. Instead of jamming everything into lecture, cover a smaller number of topics well and use homework as a way to expand on lecture content.

  4. Embrace ambiguity. Students are programmed to believe that having the right answer makes you a good person. In engineering, there is usually no *one* right answer, but different models that work for different circumstances. Students should not focus on getting the right answer but on learning when/how to apply certain ideas.

  5. Model professional practice. Ask questions that spark real, think-out-loud conversations: what happens if, why did you do this, how would you approach this problem. Even “wrong” answers can contribute to learning.

During the discussion following the panelists’ remarks, several questions came up that were addressed by various people in the room. For example:

  • Does peer instruction work? How do you make sure students don’t perpetuate misconceptions? Michelle Douskey pointed to research  (linked article 1, linked article 2) showing that when students talk to each other, they end up doing better, even when they start off with the wrong idea. Others suggested posing the same question in class twice (before and after discussion) to see how answers change. Instructors like Martha Olney have used online discussion boards successfully for many years to foster peer learning, only intervening occasionally (and often waiting to do so). Terry Johnson also pointed out the value of addressing the “wrong” answer.

  • How do you know any of this works or is more effective for students? Lynn Tran noted that active learning has been around for many years and has been studied a lot. Terry Johnson added that the last large meta-analysis shows that some active learning is better than none, but it’s unclear what the optimum amount is. One particular dialogue participant remained unconvinced, arguing that those studies may not have measured the right things and we really need to look at how well students are prepared for the next course. Greg Niemeyer has studied engagement extensively and remarked that it doesn’t necessarily correlate with final exam grades, although both are important. Terry Johnson agreed that choosing the right outcomes and measurements is difficult in education, but pointed out that a lot of these techniques model actual professional practice much better than traditional methods.

  • How do you get support from your department to try new approaches, especially when teaching is an iterative process and you don’t always succeed right away?  This is not an easy problem to solve, since some departments are more risk averse than others. Some people are fortunate that other faculty in their department have paved the way first. Others “fly under the radar” and try one or two new things each semester instead of changing a lot of things at once. Terry Johnson suggested appealing to “snobbery and fear”--providing research citations and pointing to peer institutions that are successfully doing what you want to do. Also, participating in teaching workshops and formal programs like the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Lecturer Teaching Fellows gives you “permission” to innovate.

Now in its fifth year, Dialogues is a regular campus-wide discussion on pressing topics related to teaching and learning, hosted by the Academic Innovation Studio, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching.

For one-on-one consultations on teaching-related topics, including suggestions for other ways to engage students in a lecture-style setting, please contact