One early morning, 140 college students, including myself, fall into their seats in a state of general confusion about the class material, only to write down a dreary set of lecture notes and listen to a far-off human voice mumble something about related rates. And so begins a day in the world of the lecture system.
For many schools across the country, this is the primary method of instruction. Even at the most elite universities across the United States, the lecture system remains dominant. This style of teaching is actually far older than the U.S. itself.
There are depictions of lectures going as far back as the medieval ages where seminaries taught aspiring priests the values of the church. Why, may you ask, do we still follow such an old style of teaching when almost everything else in society has evolved? The problem is that there is no real answer.
Lectures have been the mainstay of higher education for hundreds of years, and therefore, have become unnecessarily become engrained into our institutions. Instead of maintaining this outdated system, teaching styles should evolve with the times. The solution? A system of teaching called active learning.
The basic principles of active learning are simple. The idea is to get students to actively participate in the material they are learning rather than having them sit through a lecture. Students are presented with work in-class, after learning the material at home from readings or other sources of information.
The work aims to engage students with the material they read about, and apply knowledge they learned on their own. Essential in the process is the element of group work. Whether it is worksheets or projects, students are supposed to get through it in small groups, placing an emphasis on teamwork. While the groups go through the work, the professor and teaching assistants go around to help answer questions and advise groups through the process. Although this is generally how active learning classes work, a lot of it is up to the professor, who can include aspects like phone quizzes and whiteboards to engage students.
The benefits of this system are proven. Going through stimulating work that requires students to prepare beforehand improves knowledge retention. It becomes a lot harder for students to skip readings because the knowledge is required for in-class work.
Additionally, working in smaller groups encourages more critical thinking and engagement from all students by giving them a chance to play a more active role in class. In addition to helping students, active learning classrooms require the professors and teaching assistants to engage with the material they know, rather than just regurgitating the same points they’ve been repeating to every class for years.
Research shows that students in active learning classes consistently receive higher scores on exams and generally enjoy their classroom experience more. In fact, lecture classes had a 55% higher rate in failures when compared to active learning classes.
Many would argue that, given the growing number of college students, active learning is simply impossible to apply to modern education, and in theory, this argument is correct. It is very difficult to create an active learning classroom to teach 200 students introductory calculus.
Most classrooms in today’s universities are designed for the lecture system. The layout of rows of chairs facing a focal point where a professor stands and lectures is generally unsuited to active learning. Active learning classrooms work better with tables at which around 6 students can sit. Reengineering classrooms to fit this style would be difficult and expensive.
Another issue is that in the larger classes, one professor and a TA will not be sufficient to get to every student. However, both these issues can be addressed by abolishing recitations. TAs would simply be asked to participate in active learning “lecture” time rather than leading recitations. There is also the issue that active learning requires a new curriculum, which takes time and energy to create. It would mean professors would have to rethink the way they teach the material, and often requires more work to be put in. If an active learning class is not done well, the result can be a disaster for students.
I am not arguing that there is no place for lectures at universities. Of course, there are instances where lecturing is the best way to relay information. However, the evidence shows that when students actively engage with their material, they learn better.
Even if it may not be feasible to implement active learning into all U.S. universities immediately, I think there is a point to be made about having Penn specifically expand active learning. Currently, Penn supports active learning by allowing professors to request the necessary classrooms, as well as holding workshops through the Center for Teaching and Learning.
Even so, the majority of Penn classes remain lecture-style classes. If the University claims to be a global leader in education, then the way it teaches should reflect that leadership. Penn owes its students the best education they can get, and active learning is part of that education.
OTTO PIASECKI is a College Freshman from New York, N.Y. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org