Talk About Teaching and Learning
April 29, 2014, Volume 60, No. 32
Socrates over Scholasticism?
Strengthening Active In-Class Learning in Social Science Lecture
Rogers M. Smith
In fall 2013, my 34th year of university teaching, I stopped lecturing in my undergraduate classes on constitutional law and civil rights and civil liberties. Based on the results, I will never lecture in class again. The new format I adopted is still experimental and needs improvement, but one thing is clear—the most important thing. In the students’ judgment and my judgment, more students learn more from the way I teach now than they did from the way I taught for more than three decades.
I still lecture. I just do it at my desk, talking to my computer as it displays PowerPoint slides and a program called “Screenflow” records the sound while tucking my image into a corner of the screen. Then I put these video-lectures on the course’s Canvas site, where the students are required to view them each week, along with doing the readings.
I haven’t “flipped” the course, if that term is taken to mean that what we used to do in class, we now do out of class and what we used to do out of class, we now do in class. It’s true that lectures are now done out of class, but in class we do things that we didn’t do before, or not nearly to the same extent. I’m in class as much as ever, interacting with the students en masse. But now I come with PowerPoint slides of multiple-choice questions, to which the students indicate their responses using clickers. The program instantly shows in a bar chart on the screen the distribution of their opinions: 49% for answer A, 36% for answer B and so forth.
These multiple-choice questions don’t have right answers—so the students don’t get graded on their answers, though their participation is recorded and counts toward their grades. My questions are designed to get them to think about important constitutional issues: does the Constitution guarantee a woman the right to choose to have an abortion, and if so, how does it do so? Some may say A) yes, it is in the penumbras of the Bill of Rights, or B) it is in the liberty guarantees of the due process clauses or C) the 9th amendment—or they may say D) there is no such right guaranteed in the Constitution. The anonymous polling lets students express their views freely. The instant results show them they are (usually) not alone. Then we have a general discussion of why people voted the way they did, with students responding to each other’s views. Then I often re-poll to see if judgments have shifted. Often they have.
Some students are not comfortable discussing in a large lecture setting, so we still have recitations, where most do speak out in smaller groups. But because we have already had some discussion in the full class, there is more time for different kinds of activities in recitations, mini-debates and role-playing, along with more in-depth exploration of the issues that most interest the students. The new format also allows us to take time for a midterm simulation undertaken over a couple of classes and recitations. Students are assigned to different groups—congressional Representatives, Senators, executive branch officials, Supreme Court judges, state governors, various citizen groups—and asked to respond to a hypothetical political crisis that raises constitutional issues we have studied. They then react to what the other groups have done, ultimately resolving the constitutional crisis—or not.
I was worried initially that not enough students would come prepared to the full-class discussions to make them work well, so I require them at the start of each week to take a short three-question, multiple-choice online quiz. Though they are penalized if they always get all answers wrong, showing they’re not reading or viewing (or doing much thinking), the aim really is just to have them come to class prepared--so their quiz scores affect only their participation grades. Still, the quizzes provide an incentive to keep up; and they are also a means of imparting additional information, via my online explanations of which answers are correct and why. Students also do a 3 page paper early in the course; an 8-10 page take-home midterm, based on the two day simulation; and either a blue book final exam or a 10-12 page paper in lieu of the exam, if they have done 10 satisfactory reading responses during the term, showing they are mastering a range of material.
I’ve always had those writing requirements—but this format means that the students must devote more time to the class overall, with video-lectures and quizzes on top of in-class discussions and recitations. The lectures are shorter than the 100 minutes they ran under the old format. But the total time devoted to listening to me/interacting with me, and with the TAs, and their fellow students, is greater.
What are the results? So far I have used this format only in one and a half classes, but having taught substantively similar courses for many years, I have an extensive basis of comparison. For fall 2013 the course overall was evaluated roughly the same as the more successful past iterations. Many students liked the video-lectures/clickers format; some liked one but not the other; and a couple hated everything, especially what I think of as my jokes.
But in their fall 2013 midterm course feedback forms, their final course evaluations and their midterm course feedback forms in spring 2014, one statistic has stood out as superior in comparison with results using the old format. Students overwhelmingly affirmed that, “as a result of taking this course, I have a better understanding of factual knowledge, principles and or/theories in this field.” In the spring 2014 surveys, 94% said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with this statement. Often it has been more in the range of 80%. That’s improvement.
My reading of the students’ papers and exams supports their belief that they are learning a good deal in the courses using these formats.
he very best students are doing…about as well as the very best students in the past, no real change there. That is to say, they do wonderfully well, as very best students tend to do. It is in the middle and lower ranges of student performance that I see a difference. Generally in the past, some students ended the courses dismayingly at sea, making errors on basic facts about constitutional law and American constitutional politics. But after the readings, video-lectures, quizzes, full class discussions, recitations and assignments in this format, everybody gets the basics right. And more students are doing very good, even if not truly exceptional work.
For me, that’s what justifies the format. It is in fact no surprise that students learn more during it: doing the class this way means more work for them, as well as for me. It’s also harder for them just to cram at the end. Yet students do not report that the class is too much work, any more than in the past. And though I am reporting here that it’s more work for me, I can manage it, if it gets better results.
Why did I make the change? No one urged me to do so, and some cautioned against it. I have always enjoyed lecturing and have had reasonably good success at it over the years. I also believe that I have some knowledge and ideas to communicate to students that are best laid out in lecture format.
Even so, I have always enjoyed seminars, where I interact continuously with students, much more than lecturing. The lore of Western academia traces its origins to Socrates’ oral discussions with young people who thought of themselves as his students. Socrates believed that people learn best through active dialogues that prompt them to think, rather than simply to record the thoughts of others. But as medieval academies developed in which scholastics made their living from teaching (as Socrates did not), it eventually became simply necessary to use lectures to reach larger numbers of students at once.
It is still necessary to do so in the 21st century. But we now have technology that permits the passive role of listening to learn to be undertaken anywhere at any time, so that we can now devote the hours when professors are actually with students to the kind of interactions that teach best. I have felt for many years that to maintain and expand their support, increasingly embattled American universities need to show they are teaching better. For me, teaching better means finding ways to interact with students more, while not sacrificing the content delivery lectures provide. This format does that.
It’s also more fun for me. Kids say the darndest things.
Rogers M. Smith is Christopher H. Browne Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences and a
2014 recipient of the Provost's Award for Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.