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Yvonne Bert

It's not who's teaching your huge class that matters but how they teach it, a new study from the University of British Columbia says.

The researchers who conducted the study say the stand-and-deliver lecture style that dominates many university classrooms should gradually be supplanted by a more interactive and immersive model that has students responding to class material in small groups.

But the study, published on Thursday in the journal Science, also suggests that with the right tricks and training, inexperienced teachers can be as effective and engaging as more seasoned professors, a finding sure to warm the hearts of administrators increasingly using graduate students and sessional instructors to help shoulder the teaching load.

"It's what's going on in the students' brains that matters," said Carl Wieman, the Nobel Prize laureate and White House science adviser who co-authored the report. "The fundamental paradigm right now ... is it's what the person up in the front of the class is doing."

The one-week study tracked two sections of a first-year physics course at UBC, each with about 270 students. In one section, a popular, experienced professor continued his regular lectures. The other section was taught by Louis Deslauriers, then a postdoctoral student, and masters student Ellen Schelew, both of whom had little teaching experience but were trained in the interactive method.

The young teachers did no formal lecturing. Instead, students in class performed tasks in small groups and responded to questions using handheld "clickers" - seeing the results tabulated in real time - getting constant feedback from the teachers and each other. They also did pre-class reading assignments and online quizzes.

Those students showed nearly double the engagement levels of their lectured peers, had 20-per-cent higher attendance, and scored vastly better on a multiple choice test on the class material.

"[In traditional lectures] there's not much learning, and for the learning that does take place, the retention is fairly bad," said Dr. Deslauriers, the study's lead author.

Doug Bonn, head of UBC's physics and astronomy department, was so convinced by the findings that he overhauled the course to use the new, interactive style this year. But he also cautioned that schools still need their best veteran professors teaching large classes.

"All sorts of people could learn how to do this," he said. "But I still think there's value added to having experienced people with a really deep background in the discipline."

Meric Gertler, dean of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto, said it is "encouraging" to see the techniques behind good teaching can be broken down and imparted to any professor, but favours a hybrid model rather than abandoning lecturing.

"Faculty would lecture for a period of time, and then they would stop and become much more interactive," he said. "We already do this in a number of our large courses, and I can imagine doing more in the future."