Interactive Lectures: Coping with a Theatre

National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” podcast a few weeks back (January 30, 2009: had a particularly interesting discussion on new research aimed at considering the way science is taught in China and in the US. The systems can be understood as emphasizing the development of different skills. The Chinese system is predominantly focused on memorizing facts, while the US system was more concerned with learning the scientific method in an applied sense. The research goes on to evaluate whether one of these approaches was better at instilling the ability to reason scientifically (neither side scored remarkably well on this but the US students were a little stronger). This alone is an interesting question, and may go some very small way to explaining the divergence in standardized test scores across the globe.

For me, the most interesting part of the talk was a brief discussion of how lecturers may transform their presentations using technology. I think we can all relate to the visual which confronts so many of us as we walk into an undergraduate lecture hall. Packed to the rafters with students (how about lightly attended?), a few with head’s down recovering from the previous night’s diligent studies (or drinking), laptops and mobile phones out ready to record the notes of the class (or open to Facebook and youtube).

The researchers from the podcast discussed an experiment they had performed using radio transmitters and receivers in the hands of first-year undergrads so that they could interactively answer the questions put to them by the lecturer. They found this added interactivity contributed 10-15% greater student retention of the topics discussed. Forget the exact quantitative figure of improvement and the radio-shack-esque quality to their experiment. This type of interactivity shouldn’t be that difficult to implement if a majority of the students have internet access.

Simple online polls hosted on a class webpage (or personal server to avoid dealing with university IT departments) could be used to make sure important concepts are being understood. Imagine the instant gratification of finishing an important topic and then immediately assessing how many in the class understood it. This is, of course, a very simplistic example. Intro stats courses could use simple online databases to create class specific data sets. Everyone enters their height into a field on the webpage and on the main screen at the front of the hall a normal distribution appears…

I think the possibilities are quite extensive and would be infinitely expandable to adapt to any sort of creative idea. Worst case scenario, out of the 75 students only 5 vote in your quick quiz. I’m not sure who that is most awkward for although my guess is its not the undergrads…

But if it gets a few of them to pause their twittering for a moment, well, we might be on to something.


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