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Seminar-style lectures

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My title refers to what I think the difference between lectures and seminars were twenty years ago when I was a university student.  In lectures, the flow of information is one-way.  In seminars, there is more interaction.  In my day, the reason the two forms of teaching existed was a matter of economics.  One highly educated professor could speak to a hundred or more students in a lecture, then teaching assistants could interact with smaller groups to ensure the information was received.

To no one’s surprise, research has shown the interactive style of seminars is a far better way to teach students.  The big surprise is that university management has not yet caught on to how seminar-style teaching can be brought to larger classes.

Research Digest, a journal of The British Psychological Society, has an article that asks,”Is it time to rethink the way university lectures are delivered?

…the intervention students were led by Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have fairly limited teaching experience) and took part in a series of discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback. There was no formal lecturing. The aim, according to the authors, was:

“…to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at ‘thinking scientifically’ in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others.”The control group students had their usual lectures, covering the same material as the intervention students and they were given the same pre-class reading.

 two days before the test, students in both classes were emailed all the materials used by the intervention group: the clicker questions, group tasks and their solutions.

The ‘intervention’ group’s test scores averaged twice the control group’s.

Although I agree with the stated conclusions of the research and find them reasonable, I am not sure I agree that the test justifies the conclusions.

The researchers dismissed the idea that their findings could be explained by the Hawthorne Effect (i.e. a mere effect of novelty or of being observed). “While this experiment is introducing change in the student experience in one particular course (3 total hours per week) it provides little incremental novelty to their overall daily educational experience,” they said. 

I am only reading a digest or summary of the research, so I could be missing details, but it sounds to me like the novelty went way up in the week of the experiment. My physics classes -admittedly from 1986-’87, were well done with an excellent lecturer, but were far different from small-group discussions and ‘clicker-questions’.

I suspect the students were physics students and this a major (vs minor, required or elective) course.  My students take English as a required, non-major course, so I may be comparing apples and oranges here.  My students seem to enjoy my seminar-style lectures (no clicker-questions, but lots of other forms of interaction) for several classes or weeks.  Later in the semester, the novelty fades and some students need to be reminded that mine is a seminar class, where interaction is required and not a lecture class, where sleeping is possible.

When I look into lectures going on in other rooms in other majors, I often see a full class -100 or so students – with many chatting, sleeping and using their phones and tablets.  In this respect, I would say I have a smaller percentage who visibly lose interest.

I guess my conclusion is that lectures should be more interactive, and that I would love to outfit my students with ‘clickers’, but that the dramatic improvement would likely decrease somewhat with time.

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