The 2014 ISSE Report surveyed 19,844 students across Ireland’s universities, representing 15.6% of all third level students. One of the standout results of the survey was that only half of all students felt that staff were “available, considerate and flexible." (1) 20% of university students reported that they “never” received “timely written or oral feedback”. 46.2% reported receiving such feedback “sometimes” while only 36.8% received timely feedback either “often” or “very often”. Incredibly, only 7.3% of 1st year university students, those newest to university and least acquainted with its demands, reported receiving timely feedback “very often” (2). Clearly, student engagement and academic achievement at third level can greatly benefit from reviewing how students interact with their lecturers and with one another. What is proposed is a review of the relationship between large lecture-hall teaching and seminar teaching.
For too many students at third level, large lecture-hall classes are dull affairs wherein they are expected to frantically take page after page of notes before the lecturer flips to the next slide in his presentation. Students are rarely required to return to these notes until midterm or until end of term examinations whereby they will realise that they have very little understanding of what they have scribbled and resort to rote learning to be sure that they get a satisfactory grade in the upcoming assessment. Where a lecturer posts the slides online after the class, students can break up the monotony of listening passively to the flow of information by checking FaceBook status updates and arranging their social calendar. Indeed, with the notes posted online, there is even little reason to attend class at all. Of course, what is happening in these classes is that the lecturer does not see himself as a teacher, rather as a transmitter of knowledge. Many can even console themselves with the excuse that in such a large group, there is no other way to teach. This has long been disproven.
Since the mid 1990s, Eric Mazur at Harvard University has been developing Peer Instruction, a seven-step methodology for teaching large groups. In this video, @julieschell, a research associate with Mazur, explains how to implement Peer Instruction.
The key concept behind Peer Instruction is that students arrive to class with a foundation-level understanding of the topic under discussion. It is essentially a flipped classroom model. Students will read up on the topic before class and the lecturer can focus his time on probing conceptual understanding of what he deems to be the essential concepts or big ideas that students need to know. By designing a few Essential Questions, the lecturer can gauge where students are having difficulties and then, rather than supply an answer and clarification immediately, he can encourage students to develop 21st century skills, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and use of technology by having them find the correct answers to problems collaboratively.
Once students have established a strong understanding of key concepts in the Peer Instruction lecture hall and the lecturer has ensured that the feedback process is ongoing through the use of smart programmes outside of the lecture-hall, students can deepen their conceptual understanding and develop the discipline-specific skills that will ensure career readiness upon their graduation. As I recently discussed in this blog, Project-Based Learning (PBL) is the ideal means of ensuring that students become confident in the theoretical and practical elements of their chosen discipline. PBL gives students the chance to think critically, to be innovative and to develop 21st century skills. Importantly, PBL ensures that students are highly motivated and engaged in their task. As most Irish universities have strong relationships with businesses and potential employers in their regions through student work placement schemes and career fairs, it seems logical to take that relationship to its natural conclusion and engage these employers in the seminar room.
(3) sciencemag.org Jan 2009, Vol. 323, 51