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Feb. 1: Teaching large classes
Props, small groups, action improve learning
Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
Million dollar spark. Neurobiologist Diane O’Dowd uses
"garage demos” during lectures at UC-Irvine. (Photo courtesy
of Diane O'Dowd)
PULLMAN, Wash. - When you think of a college class in science, engineering or math, do you envision a professor delivering lectures at the front of the classroom and scribbling equations on a marker board?
Not if Diane O‘Dowd can help it. A neurobiologist who teaches at University of California-Irvine, O‘Dowd is a nationally recognized reformer of the "sage on stage” teaching model. Her philosophy? Less talk, more action.
In her large biology class at UC-Irvine, the action includes juggling tennis balls to demonstrate hydrogen ions and coiling socks to show DNA structure. Often, student volunteers leave their seats and join her. Other times, O’Dowd circulates through class, fielding questions and bouncing ideas off the small student teams she assigns to unravel problems.
Ideas have broad cross-campus application
Welcome to O‘Dowd’s world of interactive teaching - an approach backed by studies as being more effective than standard lecturing - that she’ll share with Washington State University in a presentation followed by free workshops Feb. 1-3.
It’s not that lecturing is bad. It’s that teachers can do better, especially in larger classes where students have little, if any, interaction with their professors, said Steve Hines, a professor who directs the WSU College for Veterinary Medicine’s Teaching Academy. O’Dowd’s visit is being co-sponsored by the academy and WSU’s Office of Assessment and Learning.
"We believe that with increased enrollment and more large lecture classes on our campus, the timing of her visit here is excellent,” said Hines. "Her ideas on how to actively engage students should have broad, cross-campus application.”
Million dollar spark
Professors have been lecturing for centuries. Why push for change? Studies show that nationally 40 percent of freshmen majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) switch majors. Additionally, fewer STEM students are graduating than non-STEM students.
And since mounting research demonstrates that students learn more when actively engaged in class than when listening to lectures, the Association of American Universities announced last September an initiative encouraging professors in the STEM fields to use more interactive teaching.
O’Dowd, however, got on board long before September. In fact, by 2006, she was so entrenched in interactive teaching that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded her a $1 million grant to help spread the word. The nonprofit research institute picked O’Dowd and 19 others it described as "leading research scientists who, through their teaching and mentoring, are striving to ignite the scientific spark in a new generation of students.”
Scrap the slouching
During a phone interview, O’Dowd - a scholar who wins big awards and gets published in leading science journals - spoke with the enthusiasm of a chef who’d launched a new, creative menu.
After 15 years of traditional lecturing, she recognized that too many students were wading through her classes with no "root understanding” of what was being taught.
"I realized that, to them, I was little more than a talking head,” she said. "For 50 minutes, I talked and they listened. And even though they appeared to understand, their quizzes and exams showed otherwise. So I redesigned the way I teach. Now my students are absorbing more, and I’m having more fun teaching them.”
O’Dowd’s redesign included dividing classes into small work teams, arming students with hand-held clickers so they could give immediate feedback on problems and questions posed during class, and using props - her legendary "garage demos” - ranging from tennis balls and socks to garden hoses and old Halloween wigs.
"They’re items I find rummaging through my house and garage,” she said. "With them, I’m able to bring scientific concepts to life in the classroom. I can look out and see fewer of my students slouched in their seats. That’s because I’ve got their attention in 3-D. Some concepts are just too hard to understand in 2-D.”
Phil Mixter, an associate clinical professor of molecular and cellular immunology who heard O’Dowd speak when she visited the Palouse five years ago, applies her strategies in his WSU classes.
|During Phil Mixter's immunology class, WWAMI
medical students are assigned small group activities.
(Photo courtesy of Phil Mixter)
"We know from studies that students learn more when they not only memorize but they also think about what they’ve memorized,” said Mixter, who teaches in the School of Molecular Biosciences and the WWAMI medical program. Interactive teaching turns students into "better problem-solvers and critical thinkers and gives them greater success in their subsequent science courses,” he said.
In Mixter’s immunology class, would-be doctors sit in clusters at tables and on couches scrutinizing problems given by their professor. After attending 6-8 hours of lectures each day, medical student Sigrid Fostvedt said she welcomes the more personal and interactive approach to learning.
"Particularly at the end of a long day, learning meaningful information from a traditional lecture is difficult,” she said. "Applying the information to a clinical problem in small groups helps us to switch mental gears and ultimately enhances our understanding.”
Address, workshops open to all
O’Dowd will give a keynote address, "Creating intellectually stimulating environments in large classes,” at noon Wednesday, Feb. 1, in CUE 203, followed by free workshops Thursday-Friday, Feb. 2-3. For more information and to register (not required but requested for planning) go to http://atl.wsu.edu/diane_odowd_visit.html.