Universities hope to ban boring lectures

Prof. Mark Decker
University of Minnesota professor Mark Decker tries to avoid lecture in his Biology 1105 course. Decker says students learn more when they're actively involved in discussion in the classroom.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Being trapped in a boring lecture can be a student's worst nightmare. Minnesota colleges understand that's not a good way to teach students, so they're encouraging professors and instructors to use a more engaging style in their classrooms.

Take this Biology 1105 class at the University of Minnesota. It's the type of course you could easily see being taught by a stuffy, bespectacled professor, standing at a lectern in front of a classroom filled with bored and bleary-eyed students.

But that's not the case in this class, which is taught by professor Mark Decker. Instead of lecturing to students about court cases and their effect on biological and social issues, Decker has the students come to the front of the room.

They pretend they're the attorneys, hospital officials, and family members in a euthanasia case involving a woman called Catherine, who is asking to have her feeding tube removed.

Role-playing not only forces students to take part in the class -- it also means they won't be tempted by texting, or Facebook, or other digital distractions today's college students face.

Biology student Jessica Connolly, 21, thinks she's learning more in this class than she would in one that's taught through lecture.

"You can't go to class and have your cup of coffee and sit back and see what you absorb," said Connolly. "It's actively learning. You have to be prepared."

Students get involved
Students in Biology 1105 at the University of Minnesota are expected to be actively involved in class. Professors say students who play an active role in class are more likely to learn than students who sit and listen to a lecture.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

And that, professor Mark Decker says, means students are more likely to remember what they heard in class.

"If a student is using information, constructing information, what that means is they are rewiring their brain," he said.

Decker says when students take part in a presentation or a discussion, they remember as much as 90 percent of what they're taught. By contrast, research shows students only remember 10 to 20 percent of what they hear in a lecture.

Robin Wright is an associate dean for faculty and academic affairs in the U's College of Biological Sciences. Wright says for most professors, straight lecturing isn't the best way to teach.

"There are probably faculty that are such eloquent, gifted lecturers that they should do nothing other than that. They have the skills to inspire and engage just by speaking. Most of us don't have that level of skill," said Wright.

That doesn't mean professors should stop lecturing altogether. For some it could mean lecturing for 10 minutes, then taking a break for student discussion -- something to shake the cobwebs out of students' brains.

That's an approach the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is hoping to pass on to its instructors as well.

About 20 MnSCU instructors, most of them from community and technical colleges around the state, recently gathered in St. Paul to hear from author and teacher trainer Sharon Bowman. Bowman has written several books on teaching, including one titled, "Preventing Death by Lecture."

"It's deadly to let our students -- like you're doing right now, sitting, without doing any kind of movements," Bowman said to the group.

Bowman's message to these instructors is to keep students talking, writing, and moving around.

"The basic thing is to get oxygen to the brain while it's learning. Lecture doesn't cut it," Bowman said.

Deanna Barger, a nursing instructor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, says the training has convinced her that teaching a course isn't just about students listening to an instructor.

"I think I had to be on stage. I think I need to change my teaching style to incorporate them doing the talking, instead of me doing all the talking," said Barger.

As instructors and professors try to make their teaching style more engaging, the physical layout of classrooms is changing as well.

This fall, the University of Minnesota will unveil more than a dozen interactive classrooms in its new Science Teaching and Student Services building.

The classrooms are about as far away from the old lecture hall as you can get. They're wide open spaces so students and instructors can easily interact.

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