EWA Tip Sheet: How to Cover Instruction in College Classrooms
Many instructors still use traditional-style lectures despite growing scientific evidence that less-passive approaches are more effective in building students’ skills and knowledge. At the Education Writers Association 2019 National Seminar, Harvard professor Eric Mazur demonstrated to journalists how active engagement – both inside and outside the classroom – stimulates higher-order thinking and motivates students to learn.
Participants who contributed to this advice:
- Eric Mazur, Harvard University
- Dan Berrett, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Main points of the presentation
- Lecturing is the dominant form of teaching, as it has been for about a thousand years. Its chief function is to transfer information by having students listen to a professor talk. It’s enduring and scalable, but it doesn’t always help students learn.
- Students learn and develop knowledge when they put new information to use – shaping it, applying it, and making sense of it.
- “Active-learning” techniques, such as peer instruction, encourage students’ native curiosity and emotional investment in learning, and take advantage of social dynamics to motivate students.
What happens in the classroom matters because it’s the core activity of schools and colleges, and is at the heart of larger concerns about higher education’s value and payoff.
Despite its importance, teaching and learning are generally under-covered by reporters.
Professors themselves aren’t trained in research-based instructional techniques. They seldom visit one another’s classrooms, and much of what we know about the way they teach and how well their students learn relies on self-reports or proxy measures.
A good way for journalists to initiate coverage is to simply start visiting classrooms and observing instructors’ methods.
Focus on STEM: Courses in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – traditionally have had high failure rates relative to other disciplines, and they also tend to lean heavily on lecturing. Visit a big STEM course and see how it’s taught. Is it mostly lecture or does the instructor use strategies that encourage students to talk with one another and engage with the material?
- Compare and contrast: Visit two introductory courses in the same discipline that are taught differently – one via lecture and the other using active-engagement methods. How are the courses similar or different?
- Plumb student impressions: Students can be resistant to courses that use active-learning strategies. Visit a course that’s taught this way. Interview students and try to understand where they come from. Are they upset because this approach is unfamiliar to them? Do they feel like they have to do all the work themselves? Do they like it? How much do they learn?
- Many colleges have offices or divisions called something like ”The Center for Teaching and Learning.” If the institution you’re interested in does, contact them and ask for help in identifying and connecting with a professor who uses active-learning techniques in his or her courses.
- Scan the university’s website for professors who have won teaching awards or have been the subject of articles by the media relations staff. These professors may be using active-learning methods. Reach out to them, start a conversation, and ask to visit their course.
Many universities offer their professors as experts on particular topics that might be in the news. If you find you’ve struck a rapport with one such expert, ask if you can sit in on a course of his or hers, particularly if they’re excited about it or trying something new in it.
Classes taught using active-engagement techniques can be more difficult to describe in stories because lots of things are happening at once: Students often work in small groups, for example. So to get a good sense of what is going on, you’ll have to walk around and listen in to their discussions. Collect phone numbers and email addresses so that you can follow up with students after you visit.
Mistakes to Avoid
Don’t wait until the end of the semester: Many professors will instinctively ask you to come to their class for some sort of student presentation at the end of a semester, but these are best avoided because the learning has generally already happened. If you want to cover teaching and learning as it is unfolding in the classroom, the best windows tend to be a few weeks into the semester or just after midterms. The latter is particularly good because students have often learned enough to be able to reflect on their learning.
Don’t wing it or come unprepared: Interview the instructor before you visit his or her course. That way, you can understand what the goals are for the course overall and for the day you will be observing. Once you see the course, you can ask the instructor (and yourself) how well he or she achieved those goals.
Dan Barrett of The Chronicle of Higher Education compared three different instructional approaches to teaching basic economics.
Shannon Najmabadi of The Chronicle of Higher Education did a nice job describing active learning in a Rutgers math class.
A history professor defended the lecture in a New York Times op-ed.
How People Learn: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine book provides good background on the research on mechanics of learning.
“Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics“: The faculty of the University of Washington’s biology department conducted a meta-analysis of the effects of using active learning techniques.
“Remeasuring Postsecondary Teaching”: This paper makes the case that distinctions between active learning and lecturing are not always clear. The author of this paper has also argued that some meta-analyses (including the one referenced above) oversimplify distinctions between active-learning and lecturing.
“Use of Research-Based Instructional Strategies in Introductory Physics” found that about a third of physicists who tried active-learning strategies switched back to lecturing.
- Student course evaluations can be useful for a general sense, and may be available, depending on the state and the institution. But use these sparingly and carefully. Student evaluations of instructors have been proven to be notoriously biased (for example, against women).
- Carl Wieman, a Nobel-prize winning physicist now at Stanford University, has written books and made many presentations about the evidence supporting the advantages of active learning techniques.
Instructors’ syllabi. These are sometimes available online, but usually must be requested from the professor. These can give you a sense of what the course is about and what the week-by-week arc of the course is. They can, at least, help you figure out the best time to visit.
Class assignments and reading lists. It’s a good idea to find out and bone up on what the students will be working on when you visit.