More on the Classroom of the Future

Back in January, I blogged about a New York Times article describing MIT’s Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) classrooms.  Just today, Diana Senechal blogged about the article, too, as well as her own experiences as an adult student in a physics class that uses clickers.  A few important questions were raised in Diana’s post and in the comments that followed it–questions about the prep time teachers need to teach with clickers and about which students we should be trying to benefit through our teaching.  I weighed in on those questions on Diana’s blog post, but I thought I would reproduce my comments here in case my readers would like to weigh in, too.

I’ve taught math courses with clickers for five years now, and (full disclosure) I’ve written a book on teaching with clickers, one that draws upon interviews I conducted with 50 faculty members in different disciplines, including physics.  As you might expect, I have a few thoughts about the questions raised here!

The first thing I noticed reading this post and its comments was the juxtaposition of the MIT student’s comment that using clicker-facilitated active learning during class means professors don’t have to prepare as much and Mike Anderson’s comment that using the IFAT quizzes he describes took more, not less, preparation time.

I think Mike’s hit the nail on the head: Figuring out what misconceptions students are likely to have, which is required for coming up with plausible wrong answers to multiple-choice questions, is challenging work.  And doing what the MIT physics professors are doing–designing intensive learning experiences that help students resolve misconceptions and build their knowledge–is even more challenging.  It requires a great deal of understanding of student learning and motivation.

Speaking of student motivation, the question was raised above asking which students are benefited by more active classroom learning experiences.  I would argue that as teachers, we have a responsibility to try to motivate and teach all our students, not just the ones that are self-motivated or the ones who learn best by listening to a lecture.  I think it’s great that Diana enjoys and benefits from a great lecture.  Evidence points to the fact that such students are in the minority.  Combining lectures with more participatory learning experiences is likely to benefit more students’ learning.

I’ll also point out that the pedagogy behind Mike’s IFAT quizzes is very similar to the pedagogy behind effective instruction with clickers–getting students to actively engage with problems and to discuss those problems with peers and their instructors, and providing instructors with useful feedback on student learning, feedback that can inform future instruction.  As Ricki points out, it’s the pedagogy that counts more than the technology.

That being said, clickers provide a few advantages that other technologies don’t.  Clickers allow me to hold my students accountable for their class participation since the system tracks individual student responses.  However, clickers also provide students with a level of anonymity since their peers can’t see who they responded, making it safer for them to take risks and be wrong.  (Asking a question to a class of students and taking the first student response privileges those students who are quicker, more confident, and more experienced.  It leaves all the other students out of the loop, unfortunately.)  And the instant display of results (in the form of a bar graph) provides the instructor with useful information for making on-the-fly teaching choices and can have an impact on student motivation.  If, for instance, students see that most of them answered a question incorrectly, they’re more likely to pay attention to the explanation that follows.

So, dear readers, what say you?  Any thoughts on the prep time issue or the question of which students are most benefited from active engagement teaching techniques?

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