When to Model, When to Guide

Student-focused learning is all the rage in higher education. Putting the student in the driver’s seat of his/her/their own learning. Enticing them to put in the elbow grease that it takes to really learn something.

To read the higher education literature, you’d get the impression that lecturing is actually harmful to learning. That the best way to organize the learning experience for your students is to have them view a video of you lecturing before class and then come into class prepared to engage in problem-based learning or other in-class group activities and active learning experiences. While I agree that getting your students active and engaged is critical for good learning, I wonder about this flipped (out) format.

For one thing, from the instructor’s perspective, this is a tall order—to record lectures, post them online AND then have problems and activities to keep the students busy learning. Between the need to constantly update course material to accommodate the march of ongoing knowledge in our fields, to the requirements to have active research programs, advise and mentor students (and colleagues) and help in the business of the institution by serving on committees, who has the time to essentially double the number of hours we spend preparing for a single class?

For another, from a busy student’s perspective, how likely are they to both read the assigned material AND view a 45-75 minute lecture BEFORE coming to class? Really? I find that my students spend hours trying to read at the beginning of the semester and then they go into triage mode– mostly just working on assignments coming due, rather than reading, reflecting and preparing for class.

So, I think the time spent in class is precious and needs to provide an effective, streamlined learning experience that is memorable enough to rise above all the other events competing for student time.

image from: www.magicalmaths.org

What do we need to accomplish for most subject areas:

  1. Students need to learn the basic vocabulary of the discipline and use it intelligently in written and spoken form.
  2. Students need to understand fundamental concepts and draw connections between them to arrive at a deeper understanding of a field of inquiry.
  3. Students need to learn how to use the tools of the trade. Tools like finding and reading specialized literature, like working with data, or interpreting others’ data, like developing an hypothesis or thesis and defending it with evidence.

As you can see, it’s really up to THEM to learn these things. And the learning is an individual experience. One that takes time (slow, quiet time). For many of the students I’ve talked with, this kind of time is best found outside of the classroom, rather than in it, particularly if the in-class time is filled with group activities.

So, what can the classroom do for them?

  1. The classroom is a great place for being introduced to concepts, vocabulary.
  2. The classroom is a great place to have questions answered.
  3. The classroom is a great place to learn how to connect ideas or how to solve problems.
  4. The classroom is a great place to get intrigued and interested in a field.

    image from: becuo.com

I think the classroom is the place where you MODEL and GUIDE your students, and where you INSPIRE them to stay interested enough to spend some time outside of class learning. I think we can accomplish these goals using a variety of in-class formats, including lecture. Most of my class sessions are a mixture of lecture (for say 20 minutes) and some kind of activity, like a small group discussion, or a think-pair-share, or a mini problem set that can become a homework assignment. Depending on the class topic, I might begin with the activity, to help solidify material begun in the previous class session, and then move to a short lecture to introduce a new topic or concept. Or, I might begin with a lecture and then switch to a discussion. To organize more than one format in a single class session takes a lot of planning and self-discipline. If I’m not careful, I can just talk the whole period! To prevent that, sometimes I set an alarm for myself so that my lectures don’t dominate the entire class session.

What ideas have you tried?