All Posts Tagged With: "lectures"
Victoria student Sol Kauffman says profs talk too much
From the Maclean’s Student Issue, on sale now.
It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and I’m sitting in my afternoon writing lecture. The professor has been reviewing PowerPoint slides for half an hour now. In one window of my laptop, I’m brewing ideas for the paper due at the end of this week; in another, I’m editing a photo shoot I did on the weekend. In my busy life, this is the perfect opportunity to get some work done. I half listen to the lecture, perking up when a question is asked. Lots of chairs in front of me are empty. Obviously the usual number of people are skipping class today. Maybe they’re sick, maybe they’re working a part-time job; hell, maybe they just slept in. In front of me, I see a student on Facebook, another writing in her journal, another texting on a phone. I know these students and they’re strong writers; I’m confident they’ll all pass with at least a B+. It’s not that the assignments are easy. On the contrary, we’ll all spend some sleepless nights grinding away at them. So why are so many of us absent, physically or mentally, from lectures?
Catch up on everything you wish you’d learned in school
You’ve grasped the intricacies of quantum mechanics, toured the great museums of Europe, understood the significance of the Peloponnesian War and come to terms with why evil exists. So what’s next? Perhaps wine appreciation, the mysteries of brain science or Hitler’s rise to power.
Welcome to The Great Courses, a company that’s been selling erudite audio and video lectures delivered by top-notch professors to well-heeled and inquisitive American customers for over 20 years. Now it’s planning a big Canadian presence too. Minds: prepared to be expanded.
The course selection at The Great Courses reads like an educational playground for the intellectually curious. It’s as broad and detailed as any university course calendar, although much more convenient. Courses typically consist of 12 to 36 half-hour lectures on CD, DVD or audio file. Packed with undergraduate-level information, each lecture is short enough to enjoy while commuting, after dinner, or while killing time during your kid’s dance lesson.
Sometimes no notes are the best kind for lecturing.
You can tell a lot about a university instructor from the notes that he uses in class. When I was an undergraduate my friends scoffed at profs who dragged out yellowed sheaves with text that had been pounded out on a manual typewriter decades before. By contrast, they revered those teachers who lectured brilliantly with no notes whatsoever. I never wanted to be the former, and now I am working at being the latter.
When I gave lectures as a graduate student, I prepared detailed notes for every class with full sentences and key words in bold. Just starting out, I was deathly afraid of seeming unprepared, or, worse, forgetting where I was and not knowing what to say, or worst of all, of running out of material before the class ended. Like all grad students, I feared deep down that I was a fraud and would be found out at any minute. I would psych myself up on the way to class by assuring myself that I was well prepared, and if I was going to be exposed as a fraud, it would not be today. So my notes offered a kind of security. I didn’t just read from my script, but I had the script there, just in case. In fact, if I got too nervous and forgot what I was going to say, I would read a few lines from what I had prepared and that would get me back on track.
That practice continued when I became a professor because, again, you want to make a good impression, and nothing makes a worse impression than seeming inexpert on the topic you’re supposed to be an expert in. Or so I thought. But a few years in, I had an experience that changed my attitude. I was preparing to teach a play I had not taught before and was pressed for time. I simply did not have the hours to prepare the kind of notes I always prepared before. And so, in desperation, I made only a brief outline for each of the scenes I wanted to talk about and the main ideas I wanted to address. As I went to class, much of my old grad-school anxiety came back, and I feared the worst. But to my astonishment, the class went better than any class that year. Without detailed notes, I spoke more freely about the play and students picked up on it. Since I was not so bound to my notes, the students felt more free to raise questions and make contributions, because they sensed they were not interrupting me.
That class marked a gradual turn in my teaching style and over the years I have come to rely on notes less and less. Even when I had notes prepared from years past — not yellowed but well-used — I relied on them less frequently, and in many classes, I had an old lecture prepared which differed significantly from the lecture I had come to give. Now, when I teach a new text, I often make only annotations in the margins of the book itself to remind myself of key points and talk without notes at all. It turns out that I actually know quite a bit about this subject I have spent my life studying, and finding enough to say simply isn’t a problem anymore. Moreover, not reading from notes leads to not standing in one place and sometimes not standing at all. And with their prof more relaxed and informal, students feel all the more willing to engage with with the text at hand. It’s less a lecture and more a guided conversation which is what I always wanted anyway. The new format actually takes more time because there is much more questioning and discussion.
Teaching in this less formal way has meant a change to the way I give exams. Since the factual material presented in class comes less systematically and more organically, I can’t rely on having covered a specific set of facts in any given week or even any given term. So my new exams will have fewer questions about specific knowledge and more questions that invite the application of a range of knowledge and skills. Such tests may be a little harder for students, but I’m hopeful that the more lively classes will better prepare them for these kinds of evaluations.
All this has worked in my case, and has come as a part of a process of constant reflection on how I want to teach, but I hasten to point out that a no-notes approach may not work for everyone. I’ve had profs who stuck close to their notes and were riveting. I’ve had others who should have had notes to stick to.
But as for me, it has been 15 years since I gave my first lecture, and I have never felt less like a fraud.
Profs say laptops are creating culture of ‘constant partial distraction’
I’m sitting in the back row of a darkened lecture hall at the University of British Columbia. Nearly half of the 200 students have their laptops open, giving off a piercing blue-white glow that reminds me of driving at night.
A girl directly in front of me is toggling between two chat windows, a website of song lyrics, email, her Facebook profile, and, every now and then, her lecture notes. It’s hard to concentrate. I feel a pang of sympathy for the professor at the front of the hall. His multitasking students are certainly busy, but by bringing their online lives into the classroom, are they paying enough attention to him—or their educations?
Université de Montréal business professor Jean Boivin decided enough was enough a few years ago, when he read in the newspaper that one of his students had lost thousands of dollars in the stock market—while trading online during a lecture. Boivin was then at Columbia University in New York, and in consultation with students, he banned laptops from the classroom. It’s a rule he brought with him when he returned to Canada.
“I’ve never had any students complain about the policy,” says Boivin, He says bright, flashing computer screens, particularly when used for surfing the web, are a terrible distraction. He believes the laptop ban has led to his students paying better attention and scoring higher on exams.
But ask many other students and the idea of forbidding laptops is practically sacrilegious. “My attention span only lasts so long. I don’t know what I’d do without my laptop,” says Stephanie Poato, a second-year communications student at Simon Fraser University, whose laptop screen shows a large Facebook profile photo of herself. “Plus, I pay for this class, and it’s my money, so if I fail I only have myself to blame.”
Students are under too much pressure to concentrate exclusively on any one thing, says fellow second-year student Nadia Saeker. “I know you can’t really be focused on everything at the same time, it’s just not possible,” she says. “But we all have jobs and are trying to get everything done at once. I don’t have the luxury of sitting here and concentrating only on my lecture.”
While some professors seek to exclude the devices from the classroom, others are creating multimedia-rich curricula in which students can draw on online resources and interact with each other. Banning laptops is just plain wrong, according to Don Krug, associate professor at UBC’s department of curriculum studies. He says students are adults, and the best a professor can hope for is a “respectful learning environment,” where students limit their own behaviour. “If they really want to learn the information, they will. They’re paying a lot of money,” he says. “We’re better off teaching them how to be responsible learners.”
These innovative and dedicated professors are Canada’s best
Baljit Singh, a professor of anatomy at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, laughs about it now—but during his first year as a veterinary student, he failed the very course he now teaches. “I always tell my students,” says Singh. “I use it as a very inspirational example. I say, ‘Look, this is what happened to me in my first year. And I ended up teaching anatomy.’”
Singh, the one-time academic bungler, has since gone on to receive numerous academic distinctions, and is one of 10 professors named this year to the 3M National Teaching Fellowship. The award was established 24 years ago by 3M Canada in collaboration with the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Maclean’s has been the award’s media partner since 2006.
These new fellows join an elite club that now includes 238 professors. To win, it’s not enough to be merely a great teacher. “We’re looking for personalities, for people who are authentic, who are passionate—and Baljit is a great example,” says program coordinator Arshad Ahmad, a Concordia University business professor and a 3M fellow himself.
Singh attributes his pedagogic success to the teachers in his own life. “They have built a fire in my mind,” says Singh. “This is the power of a teacher—once you are hooked up with an outstanding teacher, half the battles are won.”
The 3M National Teaching Fellowship rewards great teaching, and the teaching leadership required to share innovations with the broader educational community. Fellows are regularly brought together to exchange ideas, making the club an incubator for new teaching techniques. In June, they will gather in Fredericton; in November, this year’s inductees will attend a retreat at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello in Quebec. “We bring these people together to get to know each other as teachers and learn from each other,” says Ahmad. “There they are using their cutting edge stuff and sharing it, mentoring others to follow in those footsteps.” Here are a few that will be among them:
Glen Loppnow, Department of Chemistry, University of Alberta
“This is the extract from thousands of fireflies,” jokes Loppnow. Before a class of rapt first-year science students, Loppnow pours a beaker of bleach into a bottle containing the chemical luminol. The result, known as chemiluminescence—what a firefly does inside its glowing tail—transfixes his students. “No fireflies were harmed in this experiment,” Loppnow promises, before outlining how the energy of the chemical reaction has been converted into this blue, otherworldly light. That illuminating glow is a nifty metaphor for Loppnow’s brand of teaching excellence.
Loppnow admits he wasn’t always a great teacher. Had you caught one of his lectures a decade ago, he says, “you would have seen somebody whom the students considered mediocre and grumpy. I was rapidly getting a really bad reputation.” Caught up in the imperatives of research, Loppnow realized he was neglecting his real passion. “I was really denying my true self,” he says. “I really wanted to be a teacher.”
As a kid growing up in a tough neighbourhood in New Mexico, university didn’t appear to be in the cards for Loppnow. No one in his family had gone beyond Grade 12. But it was a high school English teacher, Susan Frye, who saw promise and encouraged him to apply to college. He got in, eventually doing graduate work at Berkeley and Princeton. Frye “changed my life,” says Loppnow. “That’s really the transition from my being a truck driver—which is what I thought I was going to be—to being a professor.” After the death of his father, Loppnow took an introspective sabbatical and realized what he needed to do to change his life—concentrate on teaching as much as on research. “I wanted to change students’ lives the way that my life had changed.”
With avatars and online games, students can interact with professors, curriculum and each other
As pens and legal pads have given way to laptops in the lecture hall, professors who are usually incensed by key tapping and the annoyances of technology have gradually adjusted – or at least accepted that such gizmos are here to stay.
The most innovative of the bunch have turned the distractions of technology to their advantage.
These tech-savvy educators are transplanting the classroom into the digital realm, shifting eager students into cyber-classes and shedding teaching limitations of the past.
Lyle Wetsch is one of those professors. Last year, he joined at least 10 other Canadian educational institutions inhabiting Second Life, an online virtual world, to teach an MBA class for students at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L.
Interacting via his lifelike representation – called an avatar – Wetsch led students on virtual visits of the headquarters of major car companies. He also had virtual office hours and encouraged students to meet and practise presentations before the real deal.
“One of the advantages of education in the virtual world is you’re not limited to what you’re stuck with in the real world,” he said.
Indeed, entirely new demographics are being reached. Online learning opens doors for the sick, disabled and shy, to those living in remote areas or who are financially disadvantaged, and to students being home-schooled.
For students in grade school and high school, online tutoring is being offered for free through programs such as TV Ontario’s Ask a Teacher service, or for a fee by services such as newly launched TutorJam.
“There are students who for some reason got left behind,” said TutorJam founder Ajit Singh, who is also a professor at the University of Waterloo. “They cannot clearly state that they are not ‘getting it.’ And this tutoring service is right in the privacy of their homes, so kids can just open up.”
Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., Canada’s first school to build a campus in Second Life, has used the platform successfully.
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, students hoping to become border guards saw their grades drop after practice sessions at the Canada-U.S. border were cut back.
The creation of a realistic simulation in Second Life provided a way for the students to attain the same skills. Students later tested in mock interview scenarios of people passing between countries saw their marks jump 28 per cent.
Not to jinx myself, but…
Up until today, everything I knew about university was second-hand. For years, I’ve heard adults describe university as a place to, “discover yourself.” A place to “define who you are,” and, “explore your future.”
University kind of sounded like an artsy movie.
I figured that after sitting through official university lectures, I’d be Changed as a Person. I’d willingly read Hamlet, and probably say stuff like, “How could I not have recognized the poetic intricacies of Shakespeare’s prose before?”
Heck, I’d be able to legitimately use the word, “prose,” in a sentence.
I thought that after a whole day of university, I’d have a Confucius quote memorized for any given situation. If someone gave me a hard time on the bus, I could tell them that, “He who seeks a path of violence begets only a hallowed spear.”
But my high school-adapted mind made foolish assumptions about university. For one thing, the biggest change I noticed between high school and university has nothing to do with my Inner Core or Sense of Self: mainly, I noticed that people have an enhanced sense of body space in university.
Nothing in existence moves slower than a pack of grade nine students (other than plot lines from movies made in the 70’s). But in university, Slow Walkers are almost nonexistent. The almost-extinct species no longer travels in packs. The rare herd of Slow Walkers will actually acknowledge the fact that someone is walking behind them, and then will diverge to let them past. People hold doors for each other.
The best thing about being an official university student, though, is impressing all of my 12-year-old brother’s friends.
Yup, they’re in awe of my four months of summer vacation.