UC Davis: A look inside attempts to make large lecture classes active and personal

In my recent keynote for the Online Teaching Conference, the core argument was as follows:

While there will be (significant) unbundling around the edges, the bigger potential impact [of ed innovation] is how existing colleges and universities allow technology-enabled change to enter the mainstream of the academic mission.

Let’s look at one example. Back in December the New York Times published an article highlighting work done at the University of California at Davis to transform large lecture classes into active learning formats.

Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.

In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading.

Both are introductory chemistry classes at the University of California campus here in Davis, but they present a sharp contrast — the traditional and orderly but dull versus the experimental and engaging but noisy. Breaking from practices that many educators say have proved ineffectual, Dr. Uvarov’s class is part of an effort at a small but growing number of colleges to transform the way science is taught.

This article follows the same argument laid out in the Washington Post nearly three years earlier.

Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away. [snip]

Lecture classrooms are the big-box retailers of academia, paragons of efficiency. One professor can teach hundreds of students in a single room, trailed by a retinue of teaching assistants.

But higher-education leaders increasingly blame the format for high attrition in science and math classes. They say the lecture is a turn-off, higher education at its most passive, leading to frustration and bad grades in highly challenging disciplines.

What do these large lecture transformations look like? We got the chance in our recent e-Literate TV case study to get an inside look at the work done at UC Davis (episode 1, episode 2, episode 3), including first-person accounts from faculty members and students.

The organizing idea is to apply active learning principles such as the flipped classroom to large introductory science classes.

Phil Hill: It sounds to me like you have common learning design principles that are being implemented, but they get implemented in different ways. So, you have common things of making students accountable, having the classes much more interactive where students have to react and try to apply what they’re learning.

Chris Pagliarulo: Yeah, the main general principle here is we’re trying to get—if you want to learn something complex, which is what we try to at an R1 university, that takes a lot of practice and feedback. Until recently, much of that was supposed to be going on at home with homework or whatnot, but it’s difficult to get feedback at home when the smart people aren’t there that would help you—either your peers or your professor.

So, that’s the whole idea of the flipped classroom where come prepared with some basic understand and take that time where you’re all together to do the high-quality practice and get the feedback while we’re all together. Everything that we’re doing is focused on that sort of principle—getting that principle into the classroom.

Professor Mitch Singer then describes his background in the redesign.

Phil Hill: Several years ago, the iAMSTEM group started working with the biology and chemistry departments to apply some of these learning concepts in an iterative fashion.

Mitch Singer: My (hopefully) permanent assignment now, at least for the next five years, will be what we call “BIS 2A,” which is the first introductory course of biology here at UC Davis. It’s part of a series, and its primary goal is to teach fundamentals of cellular and molecular biology going from origins up to the formation of a cell. We teach all the fundamentals in this class: the stuff that’s used for future ones.

About three to four years ago, I got involved in this class to sort of help redesign it, come up with a stronger curriculum, and primarily bring in sort of hands-on, interactive learning techniques, and we’ve done a bunch of experiments and changed the course in a variety of ways. It’s still evolving over the last several years. The biggest thing that we did was add a discussion section, which is two hours long where we’ve done a lot of our piloting for this interactive, online, personalized learning (as the new way of saying things, I guess). This year (last quarter in the fall) was the first time we really tried to quote, flip part of the classroom.

That is make the students take a little bit more responsibility for their own reading and learning, and then the classic lecture is more asking questions trying to get them to put a and b together to come up with c. It’s sort of that process that we’d like to emphasize and get them to actually learn, and that’s what we want to test them on not so much the facts, and that’s the biggest challenge.

If you want to see the potential transformation of this core, it is crucial to look at the large lecture classes and how to make them more effective. The UC Davis case study highlights what is actually happening in the field, with input from real educators and students.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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  1. Pingback: Using TAs As Key Component Of Active Learning Transformation at UC Davis -e-Literate

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