Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
College students spend a lot of time listening to lectures.
Eric Mazur: At least until Guttenburg, the only valid approach to education was the lecture.
But experts say the lecture has outlived its usefulness.
Joe Redish: If all there is is lectures, we don't need faculty to do it. Get 'em to do it once; put it on the web; fire the faculty.
Research shows lecturing has never been effective. Now a new college is re-thinking everything about how students are taught.
Tim Horn: We are giant guinea pigs in this huge experiment.
Coming up: Don't Lecture Me: Rethinking the Way College Students Learn from American RadioWorks. First, this news.
Lee Friedman: Alright, so let's go ahead and start for today...
Stephen Smith: It's just before 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning and about 200 college students are settling down in a lecture hall for their chemistry class at the University of Maryland College Park.
Friedman: Alright so last time we spent a lot of time talking about derivations and relating equations to each other. What we're going to do today is we'll finish that up a little bit, and then...
There are three giant blackboards at the front of the room. By the end of class, they will be covered with formulas and equations that students are busily copying down. The instructor is Lee Friedman. He's lively and quick, cracking jokes and doing his best to make chemistry fun.
Students say he's one of the best instructors in the chemistry department. Still, it's not easy to sit through a long lecture, says student Jimmy Orr.
Jimmy Orr: When it's for an hour you kind of zone out for a little bit.
Research shows it's impossible for students to take in and remember all the information presented during a typical lecture and yet this is the way a lot of college students are taught, especially in their introductory courses.
[MUSIC: I Love College (as made famous by Asher Roth) - Hip Hop Beat Makers - Hip Hop Today (Instrumental Versions) - Da Hype Records]
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Don't Lecture Me: Rethinking the Way College Students Learn. I'm Stephen Smith. The lecture is one of the oldest forms of education there is, says University of Maryland physics professor Joe Redish.
Redish: Before printing, it was very difficult to create books, and so someone would read the books to everybody who would copy them down.
Eric Mazur: At least until Gutenburg, the only valid approach to education was the lecture.
This is Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University.
Mazur: In fact [laughs], ironically, the word lecture comes from the Latin "to read."
Mazur and Redish are at the forefront of a movement trying to change the way college students are taught. They say lecturing has never been a very effective teaching method. And now that information is so easily accessible, Redish says students need to get more than facts and formulas when they come to class.
Redish: With modern technology, if all there is is lectures, we don't need faculty to do it. Get 'em to do it once, put it on the web, and fire the faculty.
Redish says there is more that professors could be doing to help students learn - and to help them learn better. And he says professors should be doing more because today's knowledge economy demands more well educated people. Over the coming hour, we're going to explore what's wrong with the traditional lecture and the surprising story of how some physics professors figured it out. We'll hear about what they learned, what they did about it, and how their work is influencing a new generation of educators who are trying to invent a different kind of college. Here's American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: Eric Mazur grew up in the Netherlands and decided at a young age that he wanted to be an astronomer.
Mazur: When I was five years old I fell in love with the universe in a sense. I tried to get my hands on to every accessible book on astronomy - on popular astronomy. And I thought, this is... I was so excited by the world of science.
But when Mazur got to university, he hated the astronomy classes.
Mazur: It was all sitting in the lecture, and then scribbling down notes and then you know, cramming those notes and parroting them back on the exam and focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost.
So he switched to physics. It wasn't as heartbreaking for him to sit in a physics lecture and memorize things. Mazur eventually got a PhD in physics and came to the United States for a job at Harvard University - where he started out teaching exactly the same way he had been taught.
Mazur: I just mimicked what my instructors had done to me. I think that's what we all do. I, I sort of projected my own experience, my own vision of learning and teaching which is what my instructors had done to me. I projected that on to my students. So I lectured.
And he loved to lecture - being on stage in front of a big audience was a huge ego trip. Mazur's students apparently loved it, too. They gave him great evaluations and his classes were full.
Mazur: So, for a long while, I thought I was doing a really, really good job.
But then in 1990 he came across a series of articles that had been published in the American Journal of Physics.
David Hestenes: My name is David Hestenes.
Hestenes wrote the articles.
Hestenes: I am a retired professor of physics from Arizona State University.
Back in the late 1970s a colleague had come to Hestenes with a problem. The students in his introductory physics courses were not doing well - semester after semester, the class average on his exams never got above about 40 percent.
Hestenes: And I noted that the reason for that was that his examination questions were mostly qualitative, requiring understanding of the concepts rather than just calculational, using formulas, which is what most of the instructors did.
This prompted a series of conversations about the difference between being able to solve problems and really understanding the concepts behind those problems. Hestenes and his colleague had a sneaking suspicion students were just learning the problem-solving part, and never really getting the concepts. Eventually Hestenes, along with a graduate student, decided to develop a test to probe students' conceptual understanding of physics. Here is the first question, read by University of Maryland physics professor Joe Redish.
Redish: Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be: About half as long for the heavier ball; about half as long for the lighter ball; about the same time for both; considerably less for the heavier but not necessarily half as long; considerably less for the lighter but not necessarily half as long.
If your head is spinning, you're not alone. This is a fundamental concept in physics but even some people who've taken physics courses get this question wrong.
Redish: So let's do this by going up to the second floor.
Redish walks up the stairs of the University of Maryland physics building and opens a window [sound of window opening]. A group of his students is on the sidewalk below.
Redish: Are we ready?
Students: Five, four, three, two, one - oh ho!
The two balls reach the ground at the same time. Sir Isaac Newton is the first person who figured out why, back in the 1600s. He came up with a law of motion to explain how two balls of different weights, dropped from the same height, hit the ground simultaneously.
Mazur: Most students know Newton's second law, "f equals m-a." Force equals mass times acceleration.
This is Harvard professor Eric Mazur again. He says while most physics students can recite Newton's law and even use it correctly to solve problems, the conceptual test developed by David Hestenes and his graduate student at Arizona State shows that most physics students never really understand what the law means, or how to apply it to real world situations. Hestenes first gave the test - now known as the Force Concept Inventory - to about 1,000 students in introductory physics courses taught by seven different instructors at two different schools. Students took the test at the beginning of the semester. Perhaps not surprisingly, they didn't do very well. They took the test again at the end of the semester. And they still didn't do very well. Their scores went up by only about 14 percent - meaning that after an entire semester, they understood only about 14 percent more about the fundamental concepts of physics than they had at the beginning. When professor Eric Mazur read the article describing these results, he shook his head in disbelief. The test covered such basic material. He was sure the students in his class at Harvard knew this stuff.
Mazur: So I gave it to my students only to discover that they didn't do much better. In fact, when they looked at the test that I gave to them, some students asked me, "How should I answer these questions? According to what you taught me, or according to the way I usually think about these things?" That's when it started to dawn on me that something was really amiss.
[MUSIC: "Someone Like You" - Laura Broad - Someone Like You (Single) - Laura Broad]
What Mazur and other physicists have come to understand is that one reason it's hard for students to learn physics is that they come into class with a very strong set of intuitive beliefs about how the physical world works.
Mazur: And we can function quite well using these intuitive beliefs, right? We can push a chair on the floor, we can throw a ball in a basket; we can catch a ball even though we've never studied parabolic trajectories and even though we've never really understood forces and friction. So we all have these intuitive notions of forces, trajectories and so on, which serve us well in life.
It turns out though that many of these intuitive notions do not square with what physicists have discovered about how things actually work. Most people's intuition tells them if you drop two balls of different weights from the second story of a building, the heavier ball will reach the ground first. But it doesn't - and this is a very difficult concept for most students to understand because they already have a concept in their mind that's in conflict with this new concept.
Mazur: Once you understand physics you can connect those two concepts and you can see everything as part of a coherent set of laws and framework of laws. I think that what many students in their introductory physics courses do is they retain their intuitive notions. They memorize the framework and parrot it back but never really connect the two.
When Mazur realized that many of his students were leaving his class without really understanding physics, he was shocked. The Force Concept Inventory has now been given to tens of thousands of students around the world and the results are virtually the same everywhere. The traditional, lecture-based physics course produces little or no change in most students' fundamental understanding of how the physical world works. Even students who can solve physics problems and pass exams leave the traditional lecture class with many of their incorrect, intuitive notions intact. So how does anyone ever become a physicist? I asked David Hestenes from Arizona State to explain this.
Hestenes: It's true that we have produced a lot of excellent physicists. But if you look at what's happening in the introductory classes, even at the best schools, the classes only seem to be really working for about ten percent of the students. And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these ten percent are the ten percent of students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own.
And it's not just physics students who have to teach themselves. Research shows the traditional lecture - where students sit and passively absorb information - is not an effective way for students to learn any subject. It may seem obvious that lecturing isn't the best method to get students thinking and learning, but it's the primary way many students are taught, especially in the sciences. It's just the way teaching has been done for a long, long time, and when college was for a relatively elite and small number of people - and science was for an even more select group - most people didn't notice that the lecture wasn't working. The students who were motivated to learn, did. If the rest never understood the material very well it didn't matter that much. But it matters now, says Brian Lukoff who's working with Eric Mazur to improve how physics is taught.
Brian Lukoff: We want to have a class where everyone can be successful because we need everyone to be successful. We need to educate a population to compete in this global marketplace. We can't do that by taking our population and just sort of picking out ten percent and saying, "Oh, you know, you guys are going to be the successful ones and the other 90 percent will do something else." You know, we need a much larger swath of that population to be able to think critically and problem-solve.
[Music plays in lecture hall]
The physics class that Eric Mazur teaches at Harvard is now completely different than it was 20 years ago. It's just before 9:30 in the morning. Korean pop music is blaring in the lecture hall as students arrive for class. Mazur says music helps wake the students up. In this class, they will not be listening to a lecture. They are going to be doing a lot of the talking.
Mazur: OK, let's begin...
There are about 100 students in this class. Today they're learning about electromagnetism.
Mazur: So consider a simple parallel-plate capacitor whose plates are given equal and opposite charges and are separated by a distance "D"...
Professor Mazur is reading a question to the class. There are three possible answers projected on a screen. When Mazur is done reading, the students get a minute to think about the question and then answer it using a mobile device that sends their responses to Mazur's laptop.
Mazur: OK, no unanimity on this question at all...
Twenty-nine percent of the students have chosen the correct answer. Everyone else has chosen one of the wrong answers. Instead of telling the students what the answer is, Mazur instructs them to turn to each other and talk about the question.
Mazur: Go ahead, talk to your neighbor.
Male student: Um, yeah I wasn't actually too comfortable with this question.
Female student: I wasn't either.
Male student: I remember in the book though it said that um, so a capacitor connected to a battery, um, has like a set...
After a few minutes, Professor Mazur tells the students to answer the question again.
Mazur: So wrap up your discussions and enter what you now believe to be the correct answer.
This time, 62 percent of the students get the question right. Next, Mazur leads a discussion about the reasoning behind the correct answer. It's a kind of mini-lecture that includes lots of back and forth with the students. Then the process begins again with a new question. This is a method of teaching that Mazur calls "Peer Instruction." He began teaching this way in the early 1990s in response to how poorly his students did on the Force Concept Inventory, or FCI.
Mazur: I was discussing with my students this FCI...
Mazur was going over a question that half his students had gotten wrong. It was such a fundamental concept that he decided to devote a large chunk of class to re-teaching the idea. He delivered a detailed lecture, put all kinds of diagrams up on the board...
Mazur: I thought I'd nailed it, OK. I thought it was the best explanation one could possibly give of this question. And I triumphantly turned around...
"Any questions?" he asked. The students just stared at him.
Mazur: Nobody raised their hand and said, "Well but what if this or what if that," simply because they were so confused they couldn't. I didn't know what to do. But I knew one thing: I knew that 50 percent of the students had given the right answer. So for reasons that I don't exactly remember I said to them, "Well why don't you discuss it with each other?" And something happened in my classroom which I had never seen before. The entire classroom erupted in chaos. They were dying to explain it to one another and to talk about it.
Mazur says after just a few minutes, most of the students seemed to have a much better understanding of the concept he'd been trying to teach.
Mazur: The 50 percent who had had the right answer effectively convinced the other 50 percent. And I think the reason for that is that if you imagine two students sitting next to one another - Mary and John. Mary has the right answer because she understands it. John does not. Mary's more likely, on average, to convince John than the other way around because, you know, she has the right reasoning. But, this is the irony, Mary is more likely to convince John than Professor Mazur in front of the class, because she's only recently learned it and still has some feeling for the conceptual difficulties that she has whereas professor Mazur learned it such a long time ago, to him it is so clear that he can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it. That's the irony of becoming an expert in your field. It becomes not easier to teach, it becomes harder to teach because you're unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.
Student (to other student): Did you end up changing or did you stay the same?
Mazur (to lecture hall): OK...
Student (to other student): What did you put?
Mazur (to lecture hall): The two most popular answers are A and B so I would like to have somebody articulate the reasoning for each of those answers. Do we have a volunteer for either B or A?
Eric Mazur now teaches all of his classes using peer instruction. He doesn't prepare lectures. He teaches by questioning.
Mazur: And what we found over now close to 20 years of using this approach is that the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple.
Male student: Um, so I was thinking, draw a Gaussian surface around the insulated material?
Female student: OK.
Male student: And then the amount of charge inside is "Q."
There is a whole field of education research that has emerged from what physicists like Eric Mazur at Harvard and David Hestenes at Arizona State have been figuring out about how students learn. There are now Physics Education Research groups at dozens of universities, and a long list of peer-reviewed studies that confirm what physicists have found about the problems with the traditional lecture. Mazur's peer instruction method is one of the approaches developed in response; other teachers have developed different approaches. But they're all alike in one significant way, says David Hestenes.
Hestenes: The key thing is students have to be active in developing their knowledge. They can't passively assimilate it.
The fact that people learn better when they're actively engaged is one of the central findings from an explosion of cognitive research conducted over the last several decades. Another major finding is that short-term memory is very limited - your brain can only store so much at once. A lot of the information presented in a typical lecture comes at people too fast and is quickly forgotten. Eric Mazur says lecturing is a waste of time. It's not an effective way for students to learn information; reading the textbook is better.
Mazur: In my approach, I leave the information-gathering to the student, before class and in class we work on trying to make sense of the information. Because if you stop to think about it, that second part is actually the hardest part. And the information transfer, especially now that we live in an information age, is the easiest part.
This requires that students do the assigned reading before class - and if you talk to college students in large lecture classes - especially science classes - this is not something many of them are accustomed to doing. They attend lecture to learn what information the instructor thinks is important, then they go to the textbook to read up on what they didn't understand. To get the students to read before class, Mazur has set up a web-based monitoring system where students have to answer questions about the reading prior to class time. The last question is always the same:
Mazur: Please tell us what you found difficult or confusing about the reading. If you did not find anything difficult or confusing, tell us what you found most interesting.
Mazur has a staff of graduate students and post-docs to help him sort through the reading responses. It's from the question about what students found confusing that Mazur and his staff generate the questions used during class. Mazur says having a teaching staff makes it easier to implement peer-instruction, though he insists that after an initial period of extra effort, peer-instruction is actually less work than preparing for lecture classes. But the idea that it takes any extra effort or resources is a big barrier at many colleges says, Michael Doyle, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Maryland College Park. Budgets are being cut and Doyle says it's hard to get anything new started.
Michael Dolye: This is the era we're into efficiencies. You know you're expected to do 120 percent of what is rationally possible and to do it with 30 percent less funding, of course.
Doyle says he's observed classes that take an active-learning approach, but even if he had more resources, he's not convinced doing away with the traditional lecture is the right way to go.
Doyle: One of the things that has always concerned me and for which I've never received an answer is to the question of when you go to this, uh, student-initiated sorts of investigations where you learn by actually discovering things yourself, you must remove from the syllabus a large fraction of what one normally covers in lecture-oriented courses.
This concern - that moving away from lectures means students won't learn as much material - is one of the first things professors ask when Eric Mazur gives talks about peer instruction. Mazur's answer is that you probably won't cover as much material - but that's OK, because he says education doesn't need to be about covering material anymore.
Mazur: For example, when I took my exams they were closed book, you know, you were not allowed to use anything, maybe you could use one sheet with a few equations on it. But you had to know it all. And in fact, until probably about 20 years ago, I needed to know most of the information because I couldn't afford to walk to the library to look up anything. Now, if I need to know a constant or something, I just type it in my web browser, in Google, and a few seconds later I have the information to a higher accuracy than I would have ever have been able to retain.
Mazur believes the purpose of education is changing. It used to be about mastering a certain amount of knowledge. But knowledge is growing and changing at such a rapid rate that it's impossible to learn it all. The key now is to find and use information, not remember and repeat it. And Mazur says the goal of educators should be to help students develop the skills to understand all the new information that will be coming at them throughout their lives. In other words, the purpose of education now should be to learn how to learn. Mazur and other leaders in the field of physics education research say physics can be a good way to do this.
Peter Shaffer: One of the goals of a physics course is not just to teach the subject matter. But we believe you can also teach reasoning; you can teach critical thinking in a physics class.
This is Peter Shaffer, a physics professor at the University of Washington. Shaffer says a key skill for every citizen in the information-age is:
Shaffer: ... to recognize when you do understand something and when you don't. When you're just taking it for granted and when you really understand something that's going on. And trying to have that happen in science departments and physics departments is something that we are trying to achieve.
Lillian McDermott: And most people don't see their role that way, most of our colleagues. It's not that they would deny it's important, it's just, that's, uh, you learn that someplace else.
This is Lillian McDermott, also at the University of Washington and one of the pioneers in the field of Physics Education Research. She first got interested in how college students learn physics by thinking about how young children learn. What she noticed is that kids ask lots of big questions - like this one she got years ago from her daughter when they were in the car one night.
McDermott: Question was, "What keeps the moon up there?"
Like most parents who end up fielding this kind of question, McDermott was caught off guard.
McDermott: And I don't remember what I said, I really don't. But the reason I gave that example - people, they quit asking those questions after they're of a certain age.
McDermott says when children go to school many of them become accustomed to thinking about learning as memorizing facts and they often lose sight of the big picture. By the time they get to a college science class, they're in the habit of putting aside what they're confused or curious about. They focus on learning the information and solving the problems. The way most instructors approach the teaching of science, this is all students are required to do. McDermott says it's not until students make it to upper-level science courses - or even graduate school - that they get to tackle the most exciting and profound questions, like what keeps the moon up there. But by then, a lot of students have given up on studying science. McDermott is convinced more people would stick with science if introductory classes were taught differently. But Joe Redish at the University of Maryland says most professors are not going to change their approach.
Redish: The reason that they don't change it is because there is strong pressure on them not to do that.
Redish says the message most professors get from their departments is this:
Redish: Your research matters; your teaching you can get by with. Our department wants to be the best physics department it can be. The evaluations of those rankings are based on your research. Until the perception of the quality of a department begins to depend on how innovative and creative it is in teaching, it's going to be hard to make that change.
Redish says you have to be a bit of a rebel - and it's a good idea to have tenure already - if you're going to make big changes in the way you approach your teaching. But lots of faculty would like to be more effective in the classroom, says Julie Schell. She works with Eric Mazur and wrote her dissertation about why more professors don't adopt interactive teaching techniques. She interviewed faculty members in science, math and engineering. They told her they spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve their teaching but they're typically doing it quietly, on their own, without much information about what really works. Very few get training or coaching. Schell says at universities teaching tends to be viewed as a private enterprise - something professors don't discuss.
Julie Schell: I had a research question: "Tell me about a time when you've talked this much about your teaching?" Universally they would say, "I've never talked about my teaching like this. No one's ever asked me."
And when professors do make changes to the way they teach, often the stiffest opposition comes from the students.
Ryan Duncan: I had my reservations about how I would like this class.
This is Ryan Duncan, a sophomore in Eric Mazur's physics class.
Duncan: Basically my entire life I have been in a situation where a teacher stands up and talks and then you take notes and try to, you know, absorb the information as well as you can, so I've developed a pretty good system to deal with that and, you know, kind of revamping my entire education, you know, philosophy for this one class was a bit daunting.
But Duncan has come to appreciate Mazur's approach and says he's learning more in this class than he did in the other physics class he took at Harvard. His classmate Stacey Lyne says she's learning more too and she adds:
Stacey Lyne: I haven't fallen asleep in this lecture, or had the desire to.
Male student: That's really true. That's really true.
Lyne: Because... when you're interacting, I think it's the best way, because it kind of breaks up the lecture.
Lyne says going back to learning in the traditional way will be frustrating.
Lyne: I know I'm frustrated now with some of my other classes when I go to lecture and I have to just sit there and take in information for an hour and a half and I don't really get the opportunity to, um, think about what I have just learned.
[MUSIC: "Porcelain" - Moby - Play & Play: The B-Sides - Downtown]
Stephen Smith: You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Don't Lecture Me. I'm Stephen Smith.
Harvard students like Stacey Lyne would likely succeed in college no matter what kinds of classes or educational environments they were in. Experts say those who have the most to gain from changing the way students are taught are people who have not done as well in the traditional system, or might not have gone to college at all a generation ago. But existing institutions are slow to change. That's why one group of educators decided to create an entirely new college - where there are no lectures.
[MUSIC: "The Keyboarder" - Session Victim - Left the Building - Delusions of Grandeur]
Tim Horn: We are giant guinea pigs in this huge experiment.
Coming up, we'll learn about a college designed to teach today's students what they need to know to be prepared for the 21st century.
To read more about research on how people learn and to see a video of Harvard professor Eric Mazur giving a talk called "Confessions of a Converted Lecturer," visit our web site, AmericanRadioworks.org.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.
Don't Lecture Me returns in a minute from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Don't Lecture Me. I'm Stephen Smith. This hour, we're talking about changing college to help students learn better. And I'm here at a brand new school in Rochester, Minnesota that's being created to do just that. [Construction sounds] The building going up behind me is going to house classrooms, labs and apartments for students at the recently created University of Minnesota Rochester. I'm here with the school's chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle. He has worked at big universities his entire career. Trying to make changes in those places was hard and when he came here, he got the opportunity to build a new school, from scratch.
Stephen Lehmkuhle: What we decided here is that we're going to build an institution that's focused on learning. We want them to learn through understanding not to memorize to learn.
Lehmkuhle is an experimental psychologist by training and spent much of his career studying how the brain processes information. He's convinced people don't learn well from lectures and never did. He says students need to learn in new ways.
Lehmkuhle: The way new knowledge is being created is changing, so our structures have to change.
Lehmkuhle used to be an administrator at the University of Missouri and says he was constantly frustrated when he tried to implement different ways of doing things. So when the University of Minnesota decided to create a new campus in Rochester, he applied for the chancellor's job. The university wanted a school that would prepare students for careers in health sciences and take advantage of proximity to the city's renowned Mayo Clinic. Lehmkuhle thought that was a good idea. But he told the search committee he wanted to create a totally new kind of college at the same time - a college based on what researchers have come to understand about how people learn. Here's American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: One of the first challenges if you're going to create a college is to find a place to put it. The University of Minnesota Rochester doesn't have millions of dollars to spend on new buildings, so administrators started by renting space in a shopping mall.
Kara Cutshall: We're going to classes where there used to be a movie theater. And I used to go see movies when I was really little, like the first Harry Potter.
Kara Cutshall grew up in Rochester. She's one of about 135 students here. They're all freshmen and sophomores. The plan is to eventually expand to a thousand students - that's why the school needs the new building going up around the corner. But for now, pretty much the whole campus fits into the top two floors of this mall.
On a weekday morning, the mall is quiet except for music being piped in through the ceiling. By lunchtime, the restaurants here will be full of employees and patients from the Mayo Clinic, which is connected by a skyway. Most of the activity in the mall at this hour of the day is taking place upstairs, in state-of-the-art classrooms where the movie theater used to be.
Instructor: Good morning!
Students arriving for biology class at nine a.m. look sleepy and grumpy, the way a lot of college students look first thing in the morning. The professor wakes them up with an assignment right away.
Kelsey Metzger: So, you guys have done this for me before and I like the way it works, so write a multiple-choice question for me. So construct one - novel, don't just copy one out of the book or from somewhere else - addressing a concept related to the things we've been talking about this block. So cell cycle, DNA mutation, DNA repair, cancer...
There are 48 students in this class; the professor is Kelsey Metzger. I ask her why she begins by having students write a question.
Metzger: You know, oftentimes we say that you know you understand something when you can teach somebody else. So if a student can't really write a question, or they're unable to identify what the correct response is and maybe what some alternative response is that a student might think is the correct response, then it gives them an idea that they don't thoroughly understand the material.
This is a lot like the peer-instruction approach Eric Mazur uses at Harvard, only here the students are writing the questions in addition to answering them. And as in Mazur's approach, the idea is for students to do the "information-gathering" on their own - meaning they must do the reading before they come to class.
Metzger: It's not that they're expected to understand it all but we expect them to have looked over the material so that when they come to class we can use that time not just to introduce, you know, "this is the terminology, this is the topic," but to actually engage at a deeper level so that they can explore what those things mean, they can think critically about ideas, concepts, and they can practice.
Student Missy Erlanson: So this one's better up here, and then I just add a little bit more about this specific gene differentiation.
Metzger: Yeah, and if you look on the stuff for next class we're going to be talking a lot more specifically about this and we're going to be connecting these two ideas.
Professor Metzger is walking around the room, answering questions while the students work in small groups. Some groups are sitting on the floor; others have pulled their chairs together in clusters. All of the furniture is on wheels to allow for this kind of movement, and rather than having a big board at the front of the classroom, there are large screens across the corners. No matter where students are sitting, they can see what the professor projects from her laptop. There is no "front of the room" like there is in a traditional lecture hall and that's on purpose, says Vice Chancellor Claudia Neuhasuer:
Claudia Neuhauser: We removed the front so that we would move away from having one authority who disseminates knowledge, but really putting the focus much more on the students.
Student: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. It could be multipotent because like, maybe a muscle cell...
This way of learning is new, says Chancellor Stephen Lehmkuhle. They come in expecting instructors to hand them a study guide.
Lehmkuhle: ... so that they can memorize it and take the test. It's almost the routine, the ritual that they're in and we have to break the students of that cycle.
Student: Here we go! Oh, oh, oh!
Metzger: So this just says that this...
It's not that information isn't important says Professor Kelsey Metzger. It is important, perhaps especially in a biology class. These students are planning to go on to careers in health sciences. There is information they need to know - and Metzger says they will learn it.
Metzger: A student isn't going to get through my biology class without knowing about genomes, proteomes, and about natural selection and a few other key topics, but they're going to have that textbook or an online version or other resources that they can refer to. But if they don't know how to think about what's in that book, it doesn't matter how many lectures I've covered; it doesn't matter how many slides I have shown them.
Metzger (to students): The next activity requires you to visit the National Institutes of Health stem cell guidelines...
Students spent the first part of this class reviewing cell types. This led to discussion about the use of stem cells in research. Now students are online - everyone has a laptop - and they're reading and talking about laws that govern stem cell use. Freshman Luke Bennett says this kind of discussion makes remembering different kinds of cells easier – and more interesting.
Luke Bennett: In high school biology I don't think they related it to something that we felt we needed to know. I mean, we learned the information and I enjoyed it but I still didn't realize how all this information tied together into something that I either wanted or needed to know.
Bennett says when he was in high school he got good grades but he didn't try very hard; a lot of the classes were boring. He came to the University of Minnesota Rochester because he liked the idea of learning in a different way.
Bennett: My mom really convinced me to come here 'cause she, [laughs] she told me that like, "you went to other colleges and it looked like you liked 'em, but when you came out of here, you really looked excited to go to school," and I was.
If there is one organizing principle at this new college, this is it: get students engaged and excited about learning. After that, everything else pretty much falls into place, says Chancellor Lehmkuhle.
Lehmkuhle: Really the secret sauce is if you can get them to get into it and spend the time, we can take 'em places.
Lehmkuhle says if you look at all the research that's been done about how people learn, it pretty much boils down to one simple idea - people learn when they're motivated to learn. One of the most effective ways to get them motivated is to help them connect to what they're learning. And making connections isn't just about getting students motivated, it actually helps their brains learn, better says Chancellor Lehmkuhle.
Lehmkuhle: When you read about learning and the neuroscience or cognitive science of learning, it's all about making connections. And so that was really the basis for everything that we did here is to help students make connections.
Instructor: OK, so today, you have your book report number three, genome response number three, right?
One of the ways the University of Minnesota Rochester is trying to help students make connections is by connecting their classes. This is a writing class. All of the first year students take this class. At the same time they all take the same biology class and the same ethics class, too. In biology they're learning about stem cells and genetics. In ethics they're digging into philosophical questions related to genetic technologies. And in this class they're writing about what they've learned.
Metzger: So what answers the question, "How has your perspective changed?"
This is biology professor Kelsey Metzger. She's come by the writing class to see how her students are doing. She does this regularly. Metzger says she learns a lot about which biology concepts her students are struggling with by listening to them talk about their writing. And she says by writing, students often discover for themselves what they're grappling with. Here is Metzger reading aloud from one of her student's papers.
Metzger: "Since engaging in these activities, I am still just as lost. I have the background but no answer." That's great. I mean, that's pretty much exactly where you should be going with this. You have more information now, but they're still really difficult issues and they're not the kind of thing that one semester of classes can just tell you all the answers. In fact, nobody can tell you what the answer is. You have to think about them. So, I think that that is really your thesis statement...
A biology professor popping into a writing class to check on her students is something you're not likely to see at a traditional college says, Chancellor Lehmkuhle. That's because most colleges are divided into separate schools and departments, and that means faculty - and students - tend to think of education as a collection of isolated courses.
Lehmkuhle: I've heard the expression - it's called the "Las Vegas" course model: "What goes on in this course, stays in this course." And I've heard students say that – "Well, why are you asking us to write? I took an English course," or "Why are you asking me to do these calculations? I took my math course."
Lehmkuhle says colleges need to start thinking about education not as the pursuit of knowledge in distinct disciplines, but as the acquisition of skills necessary to succeed in a world where knowledge is constantly changing. Lehmkuhle believes the key skills are critical thinking and communication. He wants his entire faculty working together to help students learn these specific skills. So UMR has no biology department; no English department. The professors belong to one academic unit called the Center for Learning Innovation.
Lehmkuhle: All our faculty sit around the same table and design the curriculum and so you have philosophers sitting across the table from a biologist; a chemist sitting across the table from a literature person, and so on.
The faculty say they think of what they're doing as a "group practice" approach to education - an appropriate metaphor. The Mayo Clinic next door is where the group-practice approach to medicine was invented - a model where doctors, nurses and other medical staff work together closely to care for patients.
Neuhauser: It's not that we had all of these ideas when we started. I mean a lot of them are also developing over time.
This is Vice Chancellor Claudia Neuhauser again. She's a mathematician who became interested in how people learn through her own experiences as a teacher, and as the author of a textbook designed to teach calculus to health sciences majors. Neuhauser views what she and her colleagues are doing at UMR as a big education experiment. She's using her math skills to build a database to support that experiment.
Neuhauser: We can collect data over the years of how students respond to the curriculum, how they learn, what are difficult topics where we may need to provide more support.
Professors are putting everything into this database - homework assignments, tests, papers, projects - any and every piece of data they can get their hands on. The idea is to eventually analyze how well students are learning key skills and concepts. Neuhauser gives an example: right now freshmen are learning about hypothesis testing in both their philosophy class and their statistics class.
Neuhauser: They're all in both courses at the same time so they learn hypothesis testing from two different aspects. We can then follow them over the four years and every time hypothesis testing shows up, we can sort of test their understanding. And then have these longitudinal data where we can see, the first time, maybe 20 percent understand it and the rest sort of maybe sort of gets it, and then over the four years we can see, in what context do they understand it best.
Neuhauser suspects she and her colleagues will discover that some students learn well one way, and others learn better in a different way. But there will likely be common themes.
Neuhauser: Students who have difficulty in one topic, they may also have difficulty in another topic and then we can predict and tell students, "You know, if you had difficulties there, you will likely have difficulties here. Here's something that will help you to overcome some of the difficulties."
Neuhasuer says the goal is to come up with more individualized approaches to education. This is in many ways the opposite of the lecture model, which was invented as a way to disseminate knowledge to large numbers of people before books - and now the Internet - were widely available. Of course some students succeed in educational environments dominated by the lecture approach - but the goal at UMR is to help more students do better.
Student: Well, we were just wondering about cell cycle.
Student: Um, and the check points.
Professor: What about them?
Professor: So why do you think there are checkpoints?
In addition to trying to figure out what works best in the classroom, faculty and administrators at the University of Minnesota Rochester are trying to understand what kind of support students need outside the classroom. A pivotal part of their experiment is this - the Just Ask Center.
Andy Petzold: The easiest way to imagine it is to picture a bar.
Andy Petzold, who teaches biology, is standing behind a tall counter that you see when you step off the elevator into the UMR section of the mall. Two students from Petzold's class have stopped by and Petzold, like a bartender dispensing knowledge rather than drinks, is helping them with their questions.
Petzold: So, what would happen if there wasn't a checkpoint? What does happen if there's something...
Petzlod: OK, so mutations. And what could those end up causing? Something that starts with a...
Student: [Laughing] Something that starts with a C...
The purpose of the Just Ask Center is to make it really easy for students to get help.
Petzold: This is out in the open. It's right next to the commons area where students often hang out or study or do other things in between classes.
Petzhold (to student): So it has multiple checkpoints to make sure that everything's working well.
Student: Why are there only two checkpoints?
Student Missy Erlandson and her friend talk with Professor Petzold at the Just Ask Center for about 15 minutes. Erlandson has taken some classes at a traditional university and she says it was hard to get help from professors.
Erlandson: Um, I'd email them and not get any response or I'd go to their offices and they wouldn't be there cause they're only there, you know, two hours a week or something like that, so this is absolutely essential for me.
Helping students understand what they're learning is Professor Andy Petzold's full-time job. He's what's called a "student-based" faculty member. More than half the professors at the University of Minnesota Rochester are student-based faculty like Petzold. They're not expected to do any research, and they aren't eligible for tenure. They co-teach with the tenure-track faculty and when they're not in class, they're typically here at the Just Ask Center. Chancellor Lehmkuhle says he knew from experience that research pressure makes it difficult for professors to give students the help they need, so here at UMR he wanted a set of faculty members...
Lehmkuhle: ...who would have the freedom and the time just to work individually with students and to be available to promote their success.
For Andy Petzold, who just finished his Ph.D., working as a student-based faculty member is the perfect job out of graduate school. He gets to work closely with a more experienced professor. Petzold sees it as a chance to learn how to teach.
Petzold: It's kind of ironic that we, as professors, don't have any type of training in any way, shape or form and it's the only teaching degree that you don't need to go through any actual training in teaching to do.
The vice chancellor at UMR observes professors while they teach and every faculty member gets evaluated on the quality of his or her teaching. The professors who are on a tenure track also conduct research in their discipline the way they would at a traditional university. And they're expected to do another kind of research too, says chancellor Lehmkuhle.
Lehmkuhle: They're actually tenured and promoted on their ability to do research on the learning of their students.
That means a biologist has to do research on how people learn - not something biologists traditionally do. But UMR is all about breaking traditions. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of the professors here are relatively young - not yet set in their ways. Chancellor Lehmkuhle says he wants UMR to be known for innovative teaching and research on learning. When students enroll, they sign releases allowing the school to study them.
Tim Horn: We are giant guinea pigs in this huge experiment.
This is freshman Tim Horn. He's interested in going into pharmaceutical research. He chose the University of Minnesota Rochester because he likes the idea of being part of something new and different. There are few of the traditional trappings of college life here - no dorms, no fraternities or sororities, no football team, not even a library. Everything is online. Most students spend a lot of their time studying, say Rachel Nguyen and her classmate Maddy Hammerlund. They have friends at other colleges who party a lot but with fewer than 150 students so far, UMR's not the place if you're looking for big bashes.
Rachel Nguyen: We don't really have that here because there really isn't anyone to party with. So, yeah.
Maddy Hammerlund: [Laughing] Where do you go?
Nguyen and Hammerlund are making their own kind of college fun as captains of UMR's one and only competitive sports team - ballroom dance.
[Dance studio swing music]
The ballroom dance team includes 12 women and four men. They practice at a nearby dance studio. The coach is their writing instructor's husband, Jeremy Anderson.
Jeremy Anderson: Note number one: Guys - you have too much bicep in your swivels. Let your arm extend and get away from her. [Clapping] Same partner, Tango!
[Dance studio tango music and students talking]
A college where the closest thing to a football team is ballroom dance is definitely not for everyone. UMR has lost about 30 percent of its students in the two years since it opened. Exit interviews show most of them leave because they decide they don't want to study health sciences, and with no other majors to choose from, their only option is to transfer. But some students leave because they find the approach to learning is not for them, says student Lauren Smith.
Lauren Smith: They're transferring to a bigger campus cause they just don't like being so close to the teachers and them always down, like not down your back, but they're always behind you, always looking at what you're doing, how you're doing, and they want to be more independent, sort of? And have that big campus feel where you're kind of just in the shuffle and you study as you go and you just do what you want and the professors aren't really there all the time.
Students say UMR definitely takes some getting used to - but Smith and others believe the unique structure is helping them learn. For Maddy Hammerlund one of the best things is the small size and personal attention.
Hammerlund: I feel like an individual, not a number and that's huge. That's what I really love about UMR.
The way a lot of students see it, they're getting the benefits of a small private college at the cost of a public university. Tuition and fees are about $13,000 a year. Private colleges typically cost twice as much or more, which raises the question: how does this school pay for itself? The key is that UMR does not pay for a lot of things that other colleges do. The school doesn't own any buildings - even the one going up around the corner will be leased. That eliminates all kinds of maintenance and borrowing costs. Not having a library or a sports program saves money, too. Lehmkuhle says it's possible to invent a new kind of education without spending lots of money.
Lehmkuhle: I do think that what's going on here can be implemented at other places. It's just going to take longer because there's more transactional cost to do it.
What he means is there are big barriers to change at existing universities. He says getting faculty and administrators to buy into the idea of doing things differently is probably a more significant hurdle than finances. That's why Lehmkuhle says he's committed to taking advantage of the opportunity he and his colleagues have at UMR.
Lehmkuhle: I think we have a responsibility to the rest of higher education to try new things and to push the limit because we do have this freedom that they don't have.
Lehmkuhle says it will be many years before UMR has enough data to determine if its model is successful. In the long run, he'll be looking at the research his faculty generates about learning. In the shorter term, he'll be looking at things like graduate school admissions and job placement rates. One employer on board with UMR's approach is the Mayo Clinic. Bethany Krom is an administrator there. She says education that focuses narrowly on the acquisition of information is not what today's students need.
Bethany Krom: We would rather have them be able to go to some of the sources and get the latest, which may not be what they learned, and function when they finish, but know that that job is going to change and they have to be able to adapt to what those changes are and be ready for what that job is a year from now or five years from now, which could be totally different than it is today. And you can't teach to what it is five years from now, 'cause we don't know what that is yet.
[MUSIC: "Spira Mirabilis (bonus track)" - Kodomo - Still Life - 5 Points Records]
Stephen Smith: It's been more than a generation since a group of pioneering physicists began documenting problems with the traditional lecture. Harvard professor Eric Mazur expects people at colleges and universities will continue to resist doing away with the lecture, but he believes change is needed now more than ever.
Mazur: This is probably the best possible time to make changes in our approach to education, specifically because of the information age and because of the availability of technology and because of the ubiquitous-ness of information, I mean it pours out of everywhere, right?
Mazur says professors have to accept that they're no longer the powerful sages and sources of information they once were.
Mazur: That role might have disappeared, but there is a much more important role now, namely helping the students make sense of that information.
You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Don't Lecture Me: Rethinking the Way College Students Learn. It was produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorsen, Andy Kruse, Frankie Barnhill, Paul Tosto and Judy McAlpine. Special thanks to Kohnstamm Communications.
I'm Stephen Smith.
We have more on our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can see photos of students and professors at the University of Minnesota Rochester and read more about research on how people learn. That's AmericanRadioWorks.org. While you're there you can tell us what you think of this program and sign up for our weekly education podcast.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.