People do not develop this level of comprehension by passively listening to explanations, according to Wieman. “True understanding comes only through the student actively constructing their own understanding through a process of mentally building on their prior thinking through ‘effortful study.’”
Sara Harris, a professor in UBC’s earth and ocean sciences department, has implemented “effortful study” into her classroom. Instead of delivering the content of the course orally in a traditional lecture, she has her students study the nuts and bolts of the subject (the rote learning) on their own time through readings or other activities. That frees up class time to explore the concepts actively. “Rather than watching me eloquently explain what makes the winds blow the way they blow,” she explains, “the students practice figuring out how the winds blow in some scenario.”
This is similar to what U of T calls “the inverted classroom.” Lectures, especially those typically delivered in large classes with little opportunity for interaction, are taped and made available online so that students can view them at their convenience. Instead of attending lectures, students use valuable on-campus time for discussion in small groups, hands-on experiences or community-based projects.
Another key element of this more effective classroom is timely, targeted assessment and feedback. In the typical traditional classroom, students are required to complete assignments alone and they often don’t receive their marked homework back for up to two weeks. “Research shows that such feedback serves very little if any pedagogical function,” explains Wieman. He sees a role for computer tutors programmed to respond to common misconceptions, provide targeted feedback and reinforce correct thinking.
Although research suggests that technology, when used well, can have a positive influence on learning, students don’t necessarily perceive these benefits. In a 2011 report by the Higher Education Strategy Associates, students were asked about their views on e-learning. They responded that they did not learn more in classes that used electronic resources. Moreover, four out of five said they preferred to attend in-person lectures than watch online. “Students are so engaged online through social media that people assume they want to learn online,” U of T’s Misak says. “But Facebook doesn’t replace getting together at the pub.”
The shifting emphasis away from teaching content mirrors a transformation occurring at libraries. Although the number of books at libraries has decreased dramatically in recent years − the Amsterdam Library, for instance, has reduced its visible holdings by 70 per cent − libraries are being used more heavily than ever before. “This dematerialization of content is a Gutenberg moment,” explains journalist and author Michael Harris, who has written about the state of libraries. “Once we don’t have to go to the same place to access information, we find that we still need to get together to hash out ideas.”
And this is changing how we design universities. When Michael Heeney attended university, he joked with friends that he learned more in the cafeteria than in the classroom. Now, as a principal at Bing Thom Architects, he designs universities and finds himself attempting to create spaces that foster that type of casual intellectual exchange. “The in-between spaces are important. The chemistry is different when we’re all in the same place, bumping into each other, talking, sharing ideas.”
“Science is rooted in conversations,” the physicist Werner Heisenberg once said. He believed that the best scientists weren’t loners but the kind of people who talk constantly with others about their findings, challenges, techniques, ideas.
The same could be said for education. Survey after survey shows that the most satisfied students are those who have the most opportunity for connection with their peers and professors. Of course, thoughtfully used technology can bolster interaction. The video highlighting tool can push students to actively engage with lectures. Clickers, a remote control-like device that allows students to answer questions in real time, can give professors an immediate assessment of student comprehension so they can react. Online hubs like Coursera can make university-level learning accessible to millions. But the type of conversations at the heart of an undergraduate education are not the type that can be accomplished with a scheduled Skype date; they rely on happenstance. To borrow Orwin’s phrase, educational electricity does not crackle only in a successful classroom but also in the campus pub.