Interactive teaching with our chair, Kathy Miller

Lecture-test is a time-tired way of teaching. The undergraduates expect to learn from a combination of passive reading and lecturing, with active note-taking, problem sets, papers, and tests. They expect their professors to be up front lecturing, and judge them largely on their showmanship, not on the whole package. The active learning is usually done outside classroom hours, with friends, except in laboratory classes. Labs as they are usually taught have their own issues, a subject for another time.

We know that we must get new information to the students before they can work with it and make it their own. But do we really need to have the lecture so separate from the active learning component? This is not an easy question to answer because students in a lecture classroom are not all at the same level. It can be really boring to listen to an unprepared student hijack a good lecture with uninformed questions. But that same lecture may be so, so boring. Walk through the room and you will see many, even most, students are texting, stalking someone on Facebook, or doing their homework for the next class. What to do?

Our department chair, Kathy Miller and her two teaching assistants are trying something different in a fancy classroom for 15 students. I have just a snapshot view of it, because I sat in on only one day. Yesterday Kathy lectured for about 40 minutes in a fairly interactive way. She wrote on a smart board on top of the slides, doing a lot of filling in of information as she went, partly according to what the students said. The students themselves all had tablet computers also. They didn’t have the stuff Kathy added to the slides, but they did have the slides themselves, and could add their own stuff. Many of them were copying what Kathy put on the slides, but also added other notes. Mostly, they seemed engaged, though quiet.

Clearly the students had read a paper, and were working through it and the developmental pathways it discussed. The second 35 minutes of the class addressed specific figures in 3 smaller groups, each led by an instructor who did quite a bit of the talking. Each group focused on understanding one of the figures in the paper. Time ran out to come together and present to the whole class, but that will happen next time.

The technology this class used would not be possible without the expert assistance of Tra’Mel Harrel, who stayed the whole period. High technology classrooms always need a lot of help. It would be good to know how much could be done without the technology.

If you can get students to read the material in advance, then grapple with it in class, then you can run classes like this one. This class also has essays and papers, rough drafts, peer review, all things that increase the active component of teaching. It looked like fun!


Dr. Kathy Miller pointing out the organization for the small group discussions.


A nice smile from Tra’Mel Harrel, waiting for the technology to fail.


Small group discussions.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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