Revolution in the classroom
by Evan Dougherty
May 2, 2014

It takes a special kind of person to want to transform a practice that has gone largely unchanged for more than 2,000 years in a system that has nonetheless seen constant reform.

“Every period of time has felt like the time when we’re ready to make big changes, all the way back to the Greeks,” said Barry Fishman, associate professor of both education and information at U-M. “We’ve always been engaged in education reform. Tools change. Political context shifts. But every era wants to improve education.”

The practice that has persisted is the lecture, and many educators believe it is time it, too, became ancient history. Steve Yalisove is one of those educators.

“The problem with a large class,” said Yalisove, professor of materials science engineering at Michigan Engineering, “is everyone comes to lecture, and no one seems to learn much. No one seems to read the book. Students do the homework, but find ways to cut corners. They cram for the exam … and most don’t understand the material. This has always haunted me.”

That is why as of last fall, Yalisove’s section of Introduction to Materials and Manufacturing no longer has a lecture. Instead, he gives his students engaged learning activities. Class time is often spent in small groups with whiteboards at every table where students can together work through derivations, solve example problems, and make predictions to experiments. This frees up the instructional staff to roam around the room and help the students when needed.

Outside of class, the students still have work to do. Unlike a “flipped classroom,” the students are not asked to watch a video recording of Yalisove lecturing on each week’s material because, to Yalisove, lecturing is an ineffective way to first introduce a student to that material. Instead, the students read the book at home and are given difficult problem sets they must complete themselves, but are allowed to get questions wrong.

“I don’t grade the homework for accuracy, I grade the students for their honesty,” Yalisove said. He expects his students to struggle through the problems. Then in class, they get together in their small groups and work through the problems again. Once everyone has an understanding of the solutions, Yalisove has them mark up their own homework to show where they made mathematical and conceptual errors. He hopes this will encourage them to want to understand the engineering concepts, instead of just trying to get a good grade.

I didn’t learn that way
Lisa Lattuca, professor of education at U-M, sees a disconnect between existing instructional techniques and the learning needs of most students.

“There will always be a group of students that are really comfortable learning the way their faculty members learned,” said Lattuca. “You could put them in a room with a book and they’ll be intensely engaged, but that’s not every student, even at a place like Michigan.”

Many professors still think the lecture is a completely appropriate vehicle for teaching students because each of them sat through countless lectures as a student. Professors and even graduate student instructors tend to forget the difficulty they might have had when learning the material for the first time. That is why Yalisove thinks peer instruction is so important.

“Most faculty say, I didn’t learn that way, and I did just fine,” said Yalisove. “Most faculty forget that we’re freaks. We’re unusual. Most students don’t go on to become faculty members.”

Instead, with peer instruction, a student who just figured out the material the night before will often have more luck in guiding his or her classmate through the challenging concepts. Joshua Mann, an undergraduate aerospace engineering student, sees value in this approach.

“The way we’ve approached learning in the class has challenged me to focus on asking other people questions that are at my same level of understanding,” said Mann. “When we graduate with engineering degrees, there will no longer be professors around us, they’ll be our equals, and this class is a great way to prepare for that.”

Still, there are many times when the professor can provide a lot of insight to the students, which is why this problem of how to best educate students is so difficult. Lattuca admits there is not one solution.

“I don’t think every class has to be taught the same way,” said Lattuca. “But I do think that when you have research evidence that certain kinds of teaching approaches benefit all students, and they particularly benefit women and underrepresented students, who are a big concern in engineering … then you can say, ‘It’s more than that it’s just fun to do. It’s that students learn better.’”

Starting them young
This is not a problem in education that is found only in colleges and universities. There is also a shifting away from the traditional method of didactic instruction in K-12 as well.

Elliot Soloway, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of engineering and education at U-M, has been a big proponent of active learning in K-12. Specifically, he is working on developing software for mobile devices to help students engage with the material they are tasked with learning.

Mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones are already making their way into classrooms, and much of the time it is just because students are secretly using them under their desks. But schools are beginning to catch up, and soon they will be in every classroom for instructional purposes. Soloway sees this as a crucial turning point in education, and it is because of the potential of the technology.

“The computer gives the kids an unprecedented opportunity to engage in research, and it gives them an unprecedented opportunity to work together,” said Soloway. “That’s what our software enables.

“If you are learning something and it’s not exactly right, you change it. Iteration. Change is cheap … now put two or three kids together and they’re helping each other change. Documents become living documents that change as their understanding grows.” This opportunity for critical thinking and collaboration, Soloway thinks, provides the perfect avenue to really transform the way the classroom operates.

The question for both K-12 and higher education then becomes, how does this transformation spread?

Changing culture
“If you want to convince someone to use a tool,” said Fishman, “you must show them it accomplishes something they value, and then show that it can do so at a low cost.”

In higher education, the immediate cost to faculty is time. It takes time for them to learn the new methods of teaching, as well as to prepare the different types of activities that might be planned for a class. This is one reason change has been so slow.

The National Science Foundation, which supports research into these new styles of teaching, has recognized this as well. As Lattuca puts it, the NSF has put years of funding into experiment’s like Yalisove’s, in hopes that the professors will share their results and others will see them and want to learn more.

“We’re beginning to realize that doesn’t happen,” said Lattuca. “People aren’t picking up these practices. It’s not a simple diffusion of information.”

“But if you’re smart enough to ask for help,” said Fishman, “there’s a lot of it.”

Yalisove has found a lot of help, but only because he pursued it. His inspiration for completely eliminating the lecture from his class came back in 2012 after visiting the class of a friend and colleague of his over at Harvard University, Eric Mazur.

Mazur is a physics professor well known in the science education community for his innovations in the classroom. When Yalisove visited the class, he saw that Mazur had completely abandoned not only the lecture, but all exams as well.

“I was blown away,” Yalisove said. “He had set the course up in a way that really encouraged students to learn for the joy of learning, instead of for a grade.”

Now, after eliminating the lecture from his own class, Yalisove is trying to pique the interest of his fellow faculty. This past February, Yalisove, in cooperation with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at U-M, invited Mazur to speak on Ann Arbor’s campus, to share his methods.

“The room was packed,” said Fishman. “There was a lot of interest. Many people were asking themselves, ‘Can I do that?’”

A physical transformation
If this does catch on, space will certainly be limited – for now. For Yalisove, one big challenge he has faced has been finding a physical setting for his classroom.

“The ideal room for me is a cafeteria,” said Yalisove, “there’s plenty of seating, you can roll in whiteboards – I’d like to see a lot of our classrooms be retrofitted.” Lucky for him, he has a dean very much interested in improving the engineering teaching environment for his professors.

“We badly need space for what I call classrooms of the future,” said David C. Munson, Jr., the U-M Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “They will have no tiered seating – a completely flat floor with all of the furniture on wheels so you can reconfigure easily.”

The college will not immediately begin renovating its lecture halls, though. It’s too costly.

“We do have a number of facilities in mind for the future, and many of the rooms will be these classrooms of the future,” said Munson. “But we have to build this stuff. That’s one issue.

“The other issue is how to get faculty on board. I’m actually less concerned with this, because our faculty members want to be on the cutting edge. They will join in if we have enough demonstrated successes, and not just stories – but some research to back it up.

“We’re talking about hiring some additional faculty or research scientists,” said Munson, “whose research will be specifically on engineering education, including the online aspects. We need to do our part to run experiments, collect and analyze data, and report to the rest of the world.”

Of course, many educators already practicing these active learning methods of instruction say that the research exists, and Lattuca agrees to an extent.

“As an educational researcher, yes, there is enough research to support [active learning methods],” said Lattuca. “But we’re finding that engineers want to do the research themselves to know it works for their students.”

If anything, the dedication to education research shows where the college and the engineering field’s priorities are, which could mean a vastly different way of learning for students in the near future.

“I believe engineering education is pretty advanced in this,” Fishman said. “The engineering field has thought hard about how to improve teaching and learning. There is a good story to be told about colleges of engineering leading the way.”