Monday, March 07, 2011

Students and Being There

A challenging article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: Actually Going to Class: How 20th Century, by Jeffrey R. Young, dated February 27, 2011. The first (and so far only) time I had students ask me about whether they actually had to attend class, it was not, thank heavens, in my own class. I was attending a reception for potential law students. Two of the guys interested in the Intellectual Property concentration were the ones who brought this up. They had jobs in the real world, like most of the students in our evening division, so there is, I suppose, some justification. But most of our students are serious about attending class. So far, any way.

But this article is about undergraduates, and so it’s a look at our future students. And it’s not so much an indictment of the students’ attitudes, as of the classes. The article cites research that shows that most of the students interviewed pointed to experiences outside of classrooms as the most important learning moments of the college careers.

Professors talking for 16 weeks or so, assigning readings, and then testing students often appears to yield a bunch of quickly memorized facts that are soon forgotten. In an era when students can easily grab material online, including lectures by gifted speakers in every field, a learning environment that avoids courses completely—or seriously reshapes them—might produce a very effective new form of college.

That was the provocative notion posed here recently by Randy Bass, executive director of Georgetown University's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, during the annual meeting of the Educause Learning Initiative.

He pointed out that much of what students rate as the most valuable part of their learning experience at college these days takes place outside the traditional classroom, citing data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual study based at Indiana University at Bloomington. Four of the eight "high-impact" learning activities identified by survey participants required no classroom time at all: internships, study-abroad programs, senior thesis or other "capstone" projects, or the mundane-sounding "undergraduate research," meaning working with faculty members on original research, much as graduate students do.
This is not to say that traditional courses cannot engage students and result in long-lasting learning. If courses include discussion, hands-on activities or other challenges, rather than all passive listening, students will learn. One recurring lament that came up in the comments following the article online was lack of preparation for class (this is sometimes too familiar, alas!). But one of the teachers mentioned in the article had an interesting activity that addressed this. At the start of every class, he gave an anonymous, ungraded pop quiz. It addressed only how much and how well each student had prepared for class that day. Each student graded his or her own quiz and assigned a grade of between 0 - 10, with 0 being no preparation and 10 being the most. The professor would then average all the grades for the small class, and announce the result as the “collective intellectual health” of the class. At the beginning of the semester, the score was 4 or 5. But by the end, it had risen to 8. I was very impressed by this, but when I read it to my recently graduated son, he immediately said, “The students started lying.” Ahh, aww, shucks. I hope it was more than that. I suspect the professor could tell the difference.

Among other comments posted at the Chronicle’s website following the article, was a comment by Jmorrison: Several responders referred to "engagement" and "authentic learning", attributes that are essential to "deep learning." It is clear that project-based, inquiry-based, problem-based approaches are far more effective in inducing student interest, motivation, and engagement than is the traditional lecture/discussion approach. A major question is why so few faculty members use these "authentic" approaches. There is an active discussion of this issue in LinkedIn's Ideagora group at

Ideagora is an open group, having been switched by the Manager, so now, if you are a member of LinkedIn, you do not have to wait for membership. There are archives of earlier discussions of the matter at One of the discussion leaders is James L. Morrison (Jmorrison, I presume), who has posted several presentations at his website, , and the most recent on the topic is, “ Faculty Resistance to Technology-Enhanced Active Learning: What Can E-Leaders Do?” (January 7, 2011). (Scroll down the page to this title, where he has posted slides and a video in 2 parts).

Prof. Morrison uses a phrase, Technology-Enhanced Active Learning, which makes it clear that he envisions the use of technology to lift the students out of the lecture doldrums. I think most of the folks in the discussion group seem to have the same idea. It’s not a bad idea, it’s just not the only way to get students to engage. There was an interesting interchange between the IP candidate students at the Suffolk reception for potential students that I mentioned, who asked about whether class attendance was really necessary at law school, and the director of the IP program. This man is a former practicing engineer, as well as a former practicing IP lawyer. He is a very practical man, and one who uses technology intensely in his classes. He posts his lectures to his website, and uses shorter podcasts of talks by himself and by visitors to market the IP program. He also uses PowerPoint, clickers and other technology in his classroom. But he made no bones about the necessity of classroom attendance when he spoke to these potential students. Law school is not like undergraduate school. You have to be there live in person, he said, and interact with the professor and with your fellow students. The classes run differently, with a lot of question and answer going on every day. And it’s the participation in that give and take that is the core of the teaching and learning that you are paying for in law school, not any lecture or PowerPoint. If you are not there, live in person, you might as well save your tuition.

Occasionally, we have conversations at our school where a professor will raise the question of whether we can turn off the Internet connections to a classroom. This is not really very feasible with the way that wireless is available in the building now. Students would be able to pick up wireless Internet access pretty much whatever we tried to do about interdicting access to most rooms in the building. The reason the faculty wish to shut it off, though, even technology-friendly faculty, is always interesting to me. They want the students to close the laptops, to stop taking dictation, and to engage with the professor in actually working through the intellectual exercise of classroom hypotheticals. They want all of the students to engage, mentally, whether they are “on deck” or not.

I have to say, this would have been a tall order, even before the advent of that convenient student shield, the laptop lid. But with the lids up, keys clicking away and the students operating as court reporters, professors feel very detached from the class, indeed. But at least, the students are mostly there, live, in person!

The decoration is the movie poster for the 1979 movie, Being There, directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. Peter Sellers was the simple-minded gardener, Chance, who had never left his employer's estate until the owner died. Then, he was thrust into the outer world, where his only guide was his exposure to television. He appears to have a zen-like wisdom. The movie is actually based on a 1971 book of the same title by Jerzy Kosinsky, which has a very different tone from the movie.

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