UI tries to open up lectures

BY DANIEL SEIDL | MARCH 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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A professor pacing in a large lecture hall has been a typical site in colleges for decades, and the University of Iowa wants to change this.

“Large-lecture formats aren’t considered the most engaging for students,” said UI Information Technology Services Instructional Services Senior Director Maggie Jesse. “That’s not a real satisfying experience.”

To make large lecture classes more satisfying and engaging for students, Jesse started the Transforming Large Lectures Project. The first classes under the project launched at the beginning of the spring semester.

The Provost’s Office will provide $125,000 to the project each year for two years.

“There were faculty members who were interesting in thinking of a different way to teach,” UI Associate Provost Beth Ingram said. “We wanted to support them.”

The project aims to make these classes more engaging, Jesse said.

“Now, we have a lot of different teaching methods and technologies that we can incorporate,” she said. “They’re technologies [the university has] tried before, but they’re technologies faculty may not have tried before.”

One way these classes use technology is by providing information to students online before they come to the class. This allows class time to be more hands-on, said UI Center for Teaching Director Jean Florman.

“Faculty members are saying, you know, in some ways it makes sense for the students to get the knowledge base on their own,” she said. “Then when they come to class, we can actually do the exciting work. That’s the fun part of learning, not so much the memorizing.”

The new classes can also help students develop critical thinking skills.

“We focus on critical thinking skills instead of just getting the background knowledge,” said Jane Russell, the ITS Instructional Designer and Transforming Large Lectures Project manager.

“Through redesigning [these courses], we [would] like to provide a learning environment for students to develop those skills.”

Two classes at the UI have been redesigned under the project: Introduction to Environmental Science and Media History and Culture. A third class is planned to open in the fall semester, Statistics for Strategy and Circuits.

Frank Durham, a UI associate professor of journalism, teaches Media History and Culture. The main change to his class, he said, is the use of TILE (Transform Interact Learn Engage) classrooms for discussion sections.

“Instead of chairs in rows in a typical classroom, the TILE classrooms are organized by sets of round tables,” he said. “The arrangement is based much more on participation than the typical discussion section.”

UI Assistant Professor Adam Ward, the instructor of Introduction to Environmental Science, said one of the major changes for his class has been online learning.

“People walk in having an understanding of what we mean,” he said. “Students really have to think and engage. We take our face-to-face time and really optimize it.”

In addition to this, Ward said he has had a more enjoyable time teaching the class as well.

“I’m having a lot of fun teaching this course this semester,” he said. “Past iterations have been very … lecture heavy. With this transformation, we have a lot more focus and a lot more emphasis on connecting people with the material.”

Though Ward’s class has moved away from the lecture format, Durham said he still likes to use lectures in conjunction with the new methods.

“They complement each other,” he said. “The lecture format allows me to make connections between topics.”

But one student in Durham’s class said the class is not perfect yet.

“I think it has potential to be good,” said UI freshman Audrey Kuhn. “It’s just kind of like a learning curve, like they’ll get it eventually.”

After the two years the provost is planning to provide support, the project plans to add more classes if it is being successful.

“First, we had to show the data,” Jesse said. “If it was great, and it was wonderful, then we’ll have to scale it [for other classes].”

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