Transforming the Lecture Space


Imagine yourself sitting in a large lecture hall--which can range between 300 to 500 students--and while you are trying your best to digest what your instructor is saying, your mind is on everything else except what the teacher is saying. Who can blame you? Within an arm’s reach, you have instant access to news, entertainment, and virtually anyone around the world because of that handy device they call a smartphone. If this is resonating with most of you, that’s because this situation is all too familiar for most anyone who has attended college.

As of January 2014, 98 percent of 18 to 29-year-old Americans own a cell phone, and 58 percent of all adults own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Internet Project. We have many distractions in life, and those distractions do not simply go away when we step into the classroom. I believe that the tendency to be distracted in the classroom can be at least partially blamed on the disengaging traditional lecture environment.

The Outdated Traditional Lecture Space

Historically, distinguished American author, Mark Twain, was credited as saying, “College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.” While Twain’s statement was made in the late 19th century, MIT found very similar results in 2010 while researching student brain activity.

The study, “A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity,” led by Rosalind Picard, utilized technology to monitor students’ electrodermal activity throughout a typical school day, which can be used as a proxy for brain activity. The study showed that a student’s brain was least active when they were watching television and while sitting and listening to a lecture. In fact, students showed much greater brain activity when sleeping than in lecture! This study alone is evidence enough that now is the time to transform the lecture space.

My Lecture Transformation: Flipping the Classroom

The key to transforming the lecture space is to get students engaged and thinking critically. While technology enthusiasts might think this can be achieved simply by introducing a new product, such as an iPad or other tablet device, it is not the new gadget that will encourage student engagement—it is enthusiastic instruction and strong pedagogy. Technology alone cannot transform the classroom; instead, technology should only be implemented where necessary for efficiencies, and more importantly, when it is necessary to promote student learning.

In the past few years, I transformed my chemistry courses at Ohio State University through the implementation of the flipped classroom model, and have seen great results in my students’ learning outcomes. As a form of blended learning, the flipped classroom model often requires students to study new content by reading or watching lecture videos online before class. This leaves class time for discussion and other activities that can be customized to focus on content that students are struggling to understand.

However, the flipped classroom model is so much more than just providing online video as assignments. As proven by the MIT study, which showed that the least brain activity is evident when students watch television and are in class, simply combining the lecture content and video will not work.

Technology’s Role in the Lecture Space

It is the flipped classroom model that has uniquely enabled me to transform my lecture space to boost student engagement and achievement. For example, in lecture, I often use the “think, pair, share” lecture style, designed to differentiate instruction by providing students time and structure for thinking on a given topic, enabling them to formulate individual ideas and share these ideas with a peer. But rather than simply telling students to pair up with their neighbor, I use a product that I believe is necessary to promote effective peer instruction, Learning Catalytics.

Developed by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, the Learning Catalytics technology enables educators to obtain real-time student responses to open-ended or critical thinking questions, determine which areas require further explanation, and then automatically group students for further discussion or problem solving--all at the touch of a button. Students submit answers through their laptop or mobile device--the think portion.

As predicted, students sitting together in lecture often submit the same answers. However, Learning Catalytics has the ability to group students based on their initial responses with classmates from all areas of the room who provided different answers--the pair portion. This fosters true discussion, as students are forced to defend their answers to the group. It is evident by the sheer volume of the lecture hall, that student engagement and thinking dramatically increases using this model.

Once the Learning Catalytics paired group comes to a consensus, they have the opportunity to resubmit their answer—the share portion. Results from my classroom have shown that 53 percent of students answered correctly when responding individually, and once paired using Learning Catalytics, this percentage improved to 90 percent. To me, this is the perfect example to prove that this technology is an absolutely necessary tool to increase student learning in the classroom.

It is time for all educators to evaluate the possibility of transforming the lecture space, as learning is much more than the transfer of information; learning is about content, curiosity and relationships. Educators have the responsibility to provide and deliver content in a manner that will spike student curiosity, and foster relationships to share knowledge. When innovating and transforming the lecture space, I urge all educators to not use technology just for the sake of using technology, but to use technology to pique the curiosity of learners and to allow students to see things differently. Educators should approach transforming the classroom with the mindset that, we are actually transforming students’ lives by thoroughly enhancing the learning environment. 

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