The purpose of the Journal For Learning Enhancement (JLE) is to showcase research methodologies, ideas and techniques that enhance teaching and learning. This first edition of the Journal takes as its theme:
Contributors were asked to address the following questions:
The authors of the three articles selected for publication all confront the challenge posed by large classes where not only numbers but often classroom architecture inhibit active learning and free exchange of ideas. Representing the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences and the corporate world, the San Diego State University professors share the creative ideas and pedagogical strategies that have proven successful in their classrooms.
Eve Kornfeld describes her transition "from torture to delight" in her development of a methodology that incorporates student journals for a weekly commentary on and analysis of the lecture material, and structured discussion that actively involves students in an understanding of the role of the historian as interpreter of events and of the diversity of opinion that shapes our understanding of history.
Stephen Roeder counters the growing depersonalization he perceives in large lecture classes with a number of strategies he has developed to help make students feel individually acknowledged and valued. He also addresses the importance of re-engaging students' interest by connecting material presented in class (using science classes as examples) with their lives, their careers, and other fields outside the instructor's own particular area of expertise.
Renatte Adler presents her Integrated Group Projects in context of a recent RAND study assessing the way universities prepare students for success in the global corporate arena where cognitive and social/personal skills are highly ranked. Her strategy makes teamwork "both an integral and continual part of [her] course structure" and provides opportunities for students to develop and practice "real world skills" such as creative and critical reasoning and spontaneous oral and written responses.
Presentation of these articles by the Journal For Learning Enhancement was made possible by a limited license grant from the authors who have retained all copyrights.
Division of Undergraduate Studies
San Diego State University
For those of us convinced of the efficacy of active learning, teaching a large-lecture class can prove a daunting challenge. Even the most engaged students are hesitant to participate in a class of 120 strangers. Few students enter these General Education courses with the same level of commitment and confidence that they bring to courses in their majors; most are quite willing to sink back into invisibility and passivity. The poor acoustics and architecture of most of our large-lecture rooms contribute to this attitude: a tentative remark will often go unheard, and, with chairs bolted to the ground, it is physically difficult to encourage small-group discussions. Small wonder that these classes are known as "large-lecture" classes on this campus.
I began to teach a large-lecture section of History 310A, an upper-division, General- Education survey of early American history for non-majors, in fall 1991. For the first time in my teaching career, I found that I did not know how my students were responding to my lectures or the provocative readings assigned each week. I tried to encourage participation by offering extra credit for it. I used complex, rotating seating charts to keep track of which students were participating from week to week (those seated in front were most likely to participate). I succeeded only in raising the anxiety level of the students, fostering a competitive atmosphere in the class ("my hand was up and you didn't call on me"), and giving myself a perpetual headache. Beyond doubt, some other solution was needed.
When I returned to the large section of History 310A in fall 1993, I tried a different and more successful method of encouraging active learning. Developed and refined in the fall semesters of 1994 and 1995, this method has transformed the class for me and many of the students from torture to delight. I offer each student the option of taking two midterm essay examinations and writing a final paper, or of writing a weekly journal, participating in class discussions each week, and writing a final paper. In each of the last three years, about 70 of the 120 students enrolled in the course have chosen the journal/ discussion option, although most have no experience with the form before the class begins. Many try it with the understanding that they can "retreat" to the midterm option at the time of the first midterm; only one or two ultimately do so each year.
The course syllabus includes a detailed, page-long description of the journal/ discussion option and its pedagogical goals. I explain both orally and in writing that each week, each student who chooses this option must submit a one-page, typed paper that analyzes and responds to the central argument(s) of the assigned reading. Both a critical analysis of the assigned historical interpretations and primary sources, and a response to them are required. I ask students to think about what is surprising or new to them in the readings, and how they relate to "what they have always believed" about early American history. Over the first few weeks of the course, I guide those students who neglect one or the other of these aspects of the assignment to strengthen that element. By the time of the first midterm, most can identify the central argument in the reading (even if they doubted at the start of the course that historians advance arguments), assess the nature of the evidence, and offer a personal response.
The weekly journal entries serve as a prelude to small-group and class discussions. Each week I set aside 75 minutes for discussion. With their journals in hand, students are divided into five or six small groups, and asked to discuss the argument, evidence, surprises, and questions raised by one of the readings. (Given the classroom architecture, the groups generally go to sit outside; I wander between them, as unobtrusively as possible.) After about 15 minutes, the small groups return, and report in turn upon their discussions and conclusions. This sparks an open discussion and comparison of the readings among all members of the class. Those students who have chosen the midterm option join a small group as well, and are encouraged to speak whenever they have something to add. I keep track of the participation of the journal writers (they must announce their names for the first several weeks, so that I can record them). While they need not participate every week -- and are encouraged to listen as much as to talk -- they know that their overall level of participation in discussion will count toward their final journal/ discussion grade. Some students find it very difficult to speak in the large group, although they can participate in their small groups. But a surprising number feel comfortable enough, after articulating their thoughts in their journals and then trying them out in their small groups, to venture their judgments before the assembled masses. No doubt learning the names and faces of their fellow students also defuses the anxiety of class participation.
Many revelations occur during these discussions. Students who enter the course believing that history is a collection of facts are amazed to see that historians have very different interpretations of the same events and, even more surprising, that students in the class can also read the same document or primary source very differently. I could lecture all semester about how our values, beliefs, and experiences shape our understanding of history, but I could never make this point more dramatically or effectively than our class discussions do on a weekly basis. Some students thus confront a diversity of experience and views for the first time; some visibly struggle all semester to come to terms with it, and to learn how to respect and value different learning styles and diverse opinions. Arguably, this is one of the most important lessons students can learn in a General Education course.
According to student testimony on evaluations, this opportunity to connect what they are reading and hearing with what they already know and believe greatly aids the learning process. Most note that they have learned and remembered much more by writing and speaking as well as hearing and reading about historical issues. Many students (particularly Liberal Studies majors) comment that this has been the first time they have ever spoken in class at SDSU. Even those students who choose the midterm option generally believe that the discussions improved their skills of critical analysis and synthesis; their examinations seem to bear this out. Many students note that this is the first time that they have not "hated history." Overall, I have concluded that the investment of my time in reading each student's weekly journal is a good one. This may be one way to overcome the depersonalization of large classes, for students and instructor alike.
It is encouraging to see a renewed interest in teaching and learning. Techniques of teaching are just fine, of course. But when I think of the techniques of instruction, I immediately think of the numerous manuals available in any bookstore on the techniques of sex. There seems to be a dearth of attention paid to the achievement of true love between man and woman. When such love exists, the techniques are soon found and easily learned. But in the absence of love, the techniques of sex have only marginal value. So it is with education. I fear that an emphasis on techniques may divert us from seeking and grappling with the most fundamental issues of a true education. Therefore as I discuss techniques I have found valuable, I will more deeply be concerned with the humanistic aspects of learning: improving education by addressing the human needs of the whole person as a human being.
The Need To Re-Humanize Our Delivery Of Instruction
From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, I taught lecture classes often. Then, for about fifteen years I taught upper division and graduate level courses almost exclusively. In 1989 I returned from a research sabbatical to lower division teaching and was assigned to a large course in general physics. The classroom atmosphere seemed to have changed significantly. I sensed a that my students were dispirited, disinterested, even mildly hostile. This surprised me. These feelings were not present in the earlier years and I asked myself, "Why? What can I do about this?"
First, it was obvious that lower division class size had greatly increased. Second, the attitudes and interests of the faculty had shifted. When I first arrived at SDSU in 1968, it seemed to be a universal practice in Physics for all faculty to keep their office doors open to indicate that students were welcome to drop by. Now, when I walk past faculty offices all over this university, I see that they are largely closed, understandably so when one views the large amount of scholarship that is now going on and the heavy demands this places on faculty time and energy. On the lower division level, students are often in large classes and taught by professors who seem anonymous, busy with other things, and remote. Students sense that they are not welcome. Were I one of them, I too would feel that my own individual education didn't seem very important in the scheme of things.
Often to lower division students, the whole process seems to be a game: play whatever game needs to be played to get sufficient points to get the required grade to go on to play the game again. When you are finally squeezed out the other end of this educational tube, you should have a job offer and a ticket to the middle class. Some students perceive the game to be a hostile one in which it is the duty of the professor to try to keep as many points away from students as possible and the student tries to get as many points as he or she can. While many departments do a very good job with their upper division courses and laboratories in which students do get adequate personal attention, a great deal of good could be done by giving more personal attention to students in our lower division courses also. By treating individual students as valuable in their own right, it becomes much easier to get students to accept that what we tell them is also valuable.
Personalizing The University
The most important thing is to try to re-personalize the classroom. The first step is to learn the name of every student in the class, even in large lectures. I take a number of pictures around the classroom and have each student identify his or her image with initials on the front and name on the back. I use these as flash cards to learn every student's name. I make a point of referring to students by name both inside and outside the classroom. When a student asks a question in class and I refer to the student by name, it demonstrates to the entire class that I regard each of them as an individual. When I see a student outside of class, I make a point of addressing him or her by name. This amazes some students and gratifies all of them. Learning and using names does more to change the atmosphere of the class than any other technique I have tried.
Learning names is difficult for me, so I need to work hard at it. On the first day of classes, I announce that on the next class day I will be taking pictures, and I encourage students to sit in that part of the classroom that they intend to remain in for the semester. Associating a name with a face along with a location in the classroom helps. I strongly encourage students to remove their caps during picture taking as hair color and style, as well as the ability to see the face fully, helps to differentiate individuals. Making joking comments while taking pictures encourages them to look at the camera. For a class of 150 to 200 students, taking a roll of 20 pictures with a 35mm pocket camera is sufficient. Most pictures will contain a group of 4 or 5 students and a few pictures will be of large sections of the class.
The next difficult task is learning names. I circulate each deck of pictures during the next couple of classes and ask students for their initials on the front and name block printed on the back. Midterm exam time is a good opportunity to further one's learning of names and faces. While students are taking the exam and I walk around proctoring, I get out my deck of "flash cards" and try to associate individuals in the pictures with those sitting in the classroom. At the end of the test, I insist that students hand their exams to me individually, primarily to ensure that names are on the tests but also to associate names with faces as reinforcement. Furthermore, students who are tempted to send in someone else to take the exam know that they might be caught.
The next technique to personalize a large lecture class is to walk around the classroom during class, and to look at individual students while lecturing. As I use overhead transparencies projected on the screen and employ a laser pointer, I can continue talking while walking all around the class and looking at students individually. Students feel that they are receiving individual attention just by the eye contact and presence. Students who are nearby are much more likely to ask a question during lecture than when the instructor is standing in front of the whole assembly.
The peripatetic lecture style works best, at least in science and mathematics courses, when the lecture notes are on transparencies. Prepared transparencies, taking full advantage of colors, work well. However, some students write much more slowly than others. I use two overhead projectors, one with the current transparency projecting on the main screen and a second projector displaying the immediately preceding transparency on a second screen or even on a side wall. Having two transparencies shown at the same time helps students see the flow of ideas.
In large lecture classes it is common to have at least one hearing-impaired student who relies on a signer and thereby is not able to pay full attention to copying the material on the transparencies. Consequently I photocopy my transparencies and place several copies in the library on limited loan. In addition to the hearing impaired, many students will use these to check their notes or to get the notes in case they missed a class. This procedure avoids the annoying question, "I missed your class last time; did you say anything important?" I used to provide to limited loan three copies of each lecture but in recent years have been discouraged by the theft of the lectures removed from the binders.
The critical ingredient in personalizing our large lower-division courses is treating students as individuals in spite of the size of the class. I may be the biggest beneficiary from these efforts because I enjoy my teaching much more because of them. When I walk around the classroom lecturing and seeing students as individuals, it changes how I look at them and how I address them in subtle ways. When I welcome students at office hours, they know I mean it because they know I see them as individuals.
Re-engaging The Student
Besides these techniques for personalizing large classes, I look for ways to make the material itself relevant to students' lives and connected with their other classes. Many years ago, three of us in Physics created a general education course called The Physics of Hi Fi. This course used high fidelity sound systems to illustrate many of the principles of physics. In those days, many students were really involved in their systems and their music and by relating every issue in the course to these interests we produced exceptional student enthusiasm. Using hi fi as a vehicle, we taught a great deal of physics, and numerous demonstrations brought the concepts to life. For example, in one lecture we placed a speaker (hooked up to a stereo system) in a bell jar. The class could hear the sound coming from the speaker. Then we pumped the air from the bell jar and the sound diminished and disappeared. This was proof of the nearly obvious -- that sound, unlike light, requires a medium of transmission. Then we illustrated another principle -- that of conservation of energy -- by passing the speaker around the classroom. It was hot! The electrical energy flowing into the speaker from the amplifier had to go somewhere and when it could no longer create mechanical energy in the air, the energy turned into heat energy.
This is a very special example of a way to make the material the instructors wanted to convey connect with something that already interested the students. But I believe that professors ought to be able to explain to students in any of our introductory courses, whether they be general education or preparation for a major, why the major topics of the course and the overall purpose of the course is relevant to students' lives or their careers. Many of us are so involved in our fields that we do what has traditionally been done in such courses and have not really thought about the issue of relevance. Furthermore we are generally so specialized in our training that we are not well prepared to make these connections for students. We tend to teach each introductory course as if it were an intellectual island, connected, if to anything at all, only to more specialized work to follow.
Every introductory course ought to have the flavor of a liberal arts course which also makes the connections to other fields. An example from the field of chemistry should make this point: In introductory chemistry we talk about chemical equilibrium and we talk about solid-liquid-gas phase equilibria. But we never relate this to the large question of what does equilibrium mean and what kinds of equilibria are there? A marble in a tea cup and a marble on a table illustrate two kinds of mechanical equilibria. That minority of students who learn to set up the equations for a chemical equilibrium correctly rapidly lose this skill with time because the skill was never placed into the larger and very interesting picture so that it would have greater meaning. Connecting chemical equilibrium to mechanical equilibrium questions would at least motivate the mechanical engineer in the audience to appreciate the concept. This is just one example of forming those creative connections that help make the material relevant to students' own lives and goals so that no one ignores them or denies their importance.
A major difficulty for professors with large classes (in excess of 25 students) is finding not only the means, but also the time, to facilitate in-class participation by any but a handful of outspoken students. Of special importance, as will be shown in the discussion which follows, is encouraging students' participation in order to develop and practice using "real world skills" which grow out of the academic theories and studies presented in class lectures and reading materials. Examples of such skills include creative or critical reasoning, formulating spontaneous oral and written responses, and performing within a team.
The teaching method presented in this paper will be referred to as the integrated group project (IGP). It is a strategy for facilitating real world skills development through group projects by making teamwork both an integral and continual part of the course structure. Further benefits of developing these skills through use of the IGP in combination with lectures include: more and livelier interactions both in and out of the classroom, increased insights by the students into the subject matter, and therefore better grades for at least some students.
An important new study by the RAND Institute (Bikson and Law 1994) reports the results of a broad, nation-wide survey of multinational corporations exploring the ways in which university programs prepare students for success upon entering the global corporate arena. A key result is that in corporations' ratings of recent undergraduate job applicants, cognitive skills and social/personal skills are ranked significantly higher above students' knowledge of academic majors. Cognitive skills refer to ability to learn independently, problem-solving ability, decision-making, and innovativeness; social/personal skills include flexibility, openness to new ideas, ability to communicate effectively in writing and in speech. Unfortunately, "corporate representatives do not believe that colleges focus on developing these skills and qualities." (p. x)
In scientific, engineering, and technical positions,...communication ability makes a big contribution to successful job performance, but neither students nor their institutions make this association. [Corporate participants in the study] reported a similar lack of emphasis on communications ability even among entering employees with liberal arts degrees." (p. 21)
Students are aware of the difficulties of succeeding on the job market today, and many are disillusioned by the gap they perceive between the theoretical teachings in their academic courses and the need for real world skills. Professors who inform students that participation in the IGP method is a way of bridging this gap can heighten their students' interest in proactively learning and applying course material, as opposed to passively sitting through lectures.
The IGP Strategy: Using a group project as a teaching tool is not unusual in courses university-wide, but the project is commonly a one-time assignment which is often due at semester's end. A typical project may or may not involve a class presentation. In contrast, the IGP strategy used in both the Intermediate and Advanced Micro-economic Theory courses at SDSU consists of group projects/presentations which are incorporated throughout the semester in bi-weekly assignments that are related specifically to examination material.
Across campuses, students frequently report they find economic theory courses to be daunting due to the theoretical content which is perceived to be difficult to relate to real world economic situations and policies. By using the integrated group project from the start to the end of the semester, the instructor can foster cognitive skills development through hands-on learning as group members learn how economic theory is applied to creatively solving real world problems. Then, by requiring groups to present their results to class members, students build upon their abilities to illustrate how economic theory works in practice, while improving their social/personal skills at working together in a team setting and communicating effectively during oral presentations.
An important element for achieving maximum success with the IGP strategy is to spend class time at the start of the semester explaining the purpose of these group projects and presentations; i.e., that the IGP is a means of not only encouraging more class discussion and improved student performance, but also of enhancing students' skills in the context of employability. This explanation is important for establishing trust between the class members and the professor, and quelling fears that students have about speaking in front of a group and responding to questions spontaneously.
A question/answer period must follow each group's presentation. If students in the audience do not have questions, the professor should ask one or two questions which encourage the group members to go beyond their surface level presentation. It is crucial, however, to remind the class that the professor is not attempting to embarrass or harass group members. Rather, the instructor's role in maximizing the success of the group presentation as a learning tool is to encourage spontaneous responses by talking the group members through their discussion answers, which tends to encourage participation from other class members as well.
Method: At the start of the semester, the class is divided into seven groups of 4-6 members. (The method is described for a class size of 25-40.) Students are randomly assigned to groups; ideally, a quiz is given initially so that each group can be structured to include a mix of high-, middle-, and low-achievers. The composition of the seven groups will remain unchanged throughout the semester. Seven problems are then assigned which are applications from the chapters to be covered during the next two weeks.
Each group is responsible for developing a solution and presentation of results to one problem, though the groups should work all problems since every problem represents potential examination material. Then, every two weeks, class presentations will be made; exams will correspond to the group projects. One of the 7 groups is told that their presentation is definitely scheduled, while the other 6 groups are told that only one other group will be selected on the presentation day. The selection will be made randomly. Thus, in a 15-week semester with bi-weekly group projects, each group will make two class presentations -- one scheduled and one randomly determined.
The bi-weekly schedule begins with the professor presenting lecture material for two weeks, with the last 45 minutes at the end of the second week reserved for group presentations and follow-up discussions. Presentations can last 15-20 minutes, and each group member must participate in some way. The next class begins with a short exam which covers material from lectures, from the seven assigned problems, and the group presentations. The seven groups then receive their next problems, and the bi-weekly cycle begins again. (Instructors may prefer to give less frequent, longer exams, while the presentation schedule can remain bi-weekly).
Students understand that their in-class presentations and responses to follow-up questions must be well-thought out for two reasons: (1) they are, in effect, teaching their portion of the material to the remainder of class members, so presenting incorrect methodology and answers is damaging to all of the students; and, (2) they are receiving points for the quality of their presentation which will affect their final grade in the class. In order to have group projects taken seriously, the IGP grade should comprise at least 25% of the students' course grade. Each student's IGP grade is a sum of three scores, assigned by the professor, by other group members, and by the class after hearing the presentation.
To encourage the growth of communication abilities, visual aids such as posters, overheads, or flip charts are strongly encouraged and will generally enhance the presentation grade. Presentation grades may also be enhanced by groups' production of hand-outs for the class which outline methodology and solutions. Group members are told that IGP scores are not based exclusively upon the correctness of their problem solution; an important component of score determination is their ability to present their material clearly and in an interesting manner. Stress is placed upon the importance of being able to work in a group and present results, as would be the case in a corporate office or other professional setting once students have left the university.
Results: On a large campus with class sizes in excess of 25, students find interaction with others a rarity. By assigning group projects, professors encourage class members to spend time working together and developing relationships, both for studying and personal interaction. Students do not initially welcome group projects because of the added work required. Also, most students are unfamiliar with how to work efficiently in a group. Professors who offer tips on working within a group's dynamics, and who reinforce the idea that developing skills at working as part of a team and presenting results are essential to career success, will find that the method will be better received.
With practice over a semester's time, many students begin to enjoy participation in their groups. Several students have commented on how much more they were able to learn by being thrown into a working situation with their peers. For example, a full-time working student reported that for the first time he finally understood and even enjoyed economics; he was grateful for the opportunity to work with other students since he had always been afraid to approach them due to their age difference. Other students have stated that they felt the IGP method definitely improved their course grade by encouraging them to keep up with class material.
Interaction between the professor and students also increases because group members utilize their professor's office hours to discuss problem solutions before their class presentations. (Note that all groups are generally working on their problems because of the random selection process for presentations; however, once they begin meeting to solve their own problems, they begin to establish study habits to work together on other problems as well.) In the classroom, the role-reversal of having the professor in the audience listening to students lecture and respond to questions further serves to increase professor-student personal interactions. Even the difficulty of learning the names of 40 students is more easily overcome.
Though economics is a discipline which has technical problems that can be assigned as group projects, all other academic disciplines can utilize this method by assigning exercises in critical and creative thinking. This might include group projects on poetry critiques in a literature course, or describing the set-up or results of a controlled experiment in a science course, or debating two sides of an ethical question in a philosophy course.
Utilizing the IGP method entails some costs to the instructor. Integrating group projects/presentations throughout the semester's class meetings requires the instructor to put together bi-weekly problem sets; however, since written assignments (and thus grading) can be reduced by substituting in-class presentations instead, this method may not result in a great increase in the instructor's work load. Also, instructors using this method will find their office hours are often fully utilized. And, a commitment of class time to the students' group presentations is required. If, however, classes become more lively, while students begin to perform better and to report that they are truly understanding the material, this may prove to be time well-spent.
As any instructor who has required group presentations knows, students' presentation skills are often untried, almost always unpolished. Their first attempts can be labored and painfully slow, perhaps more so for their audience. However, the poorly developed cognitive skills and social/personal skills of silent students sitting through traditional lecture-style courses is all the more justification for working to improve these skills. This is especially true because of the high value that skills such as innovative problem-solving and oral presentation ability have on the job market or in graduate school in a wide variety of disciplines. When group projects and presentations are integrated in the class on a continuing basis, the instructor will inevitably witness improvement as students' confidence grows, and they develop superior techniques and styles for effective communication.
Bikson, T.K. and S.A. Law. "Global Preparedness and Human Resources: College and Corporate Perspectives." RAND Institute on Education and Training: Santa Monica, California, 1994.