Dr. Robert Beichner, second from right, teaches students in a SCALE-UP classroom.

Leaving lectures behind

September 22, 2011

Share this story:

Ask students and teachers what they like least about their classes, and you’re likely to get the same answer from both: the lecture.

At NC State, physics professor Bob Beichner and curriculum and contemporary media specialist Lodge McCammon, are working to revoke the classroom lecture’s status at the center of American education, from middle school through college.

Building stronger connections

Since 1997, Beichner, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Physics, has led the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project. The project’s focus has been on transforming large-enrollment classes from lecture-driven, one-way exchanges into fully interactive environments where professors and students spend time applying knowledge.

The key to doing that, Beichner said, is changing the classroom itself. SCALE-UP classes left behind large lecture halls for more intimate spaces where students sit at round, nine-person tables that encourage more discussion.

“The class looks like a restaurant,” said Beichner, who is also director of NC State’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Initiative. “In the same sense that a waiter needs to be free to get to everybody, the classroom’s designed so that the faculty member can get to everybody.”

Beichner's SCALE-UP program aims to replace traditional lecture halls...

SCALE-UP classes have also left the lecture behind. Students are responsible for digesting content outside the classroom, by reading textbooks, going online and doing simple homework, Beichner said. That preserves class time for applying the information and interacting with faculty members.

“That frees up the instructor time from what I call the ‘tyranny of content delivery’ because we don’t need to do that anymore,” Beichner said. “They can go around and help the students use the materials that they’ve been studying.”

...with restaurant-style classrooms where students and professors interact more.

More interaction yields stronger relationships between faculty members and students. That’s important, Beichner said, because studies have shown that good academic and social relationships are the single biggest factor correlated with student success.

And SCALE-UP classes get results. Students show marked improvement in problem-solving and conceptual understanding. They also have higher attendance rates than students in traditional classrooms, even though SCALE-UP classes generally don’t have attendance policies.

That success has drawn national attention. Funding for SCALE-UP research has come from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer and Pasco Scientific. Earlier this week, Beichner received the 2011 Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education.

Nationwide, more than 100 universities are adapting SCALE-UP, to varying degrees. The University of Minnesota recently completed a building with classrooms designed for SCALE-UP learning. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 90 percent of physics instruction occurs in SCALE-UP classrooms.

Flipping the classroom

Like Beichner, McCammon, of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, is working at the middle- and high-school levels to replace classroom lectures with more interactive, engaging activities. In the average classroom, McCammon said, students spend 90 percent of their time absorbing lectures and only 10 percent of it applying what they learn.

Seeking to reverse that, McCammon developed what he calls the FIZZ learning framework, a system teachers can use to develop activities that engage different types of learners in different ways. At the low end of the spectrum are activities that require students to simply remember information they hear. High-engagement activities call on students to apply ideas and, eventually, to create and publish their own works to show their mastery of information.

Central to McCammon’s ideas is the removal of the lecture from the classroom. Teachers applying his ideas have begun recording 10-minute video lectures and having students view them outside the classroom. As in Beichner’s SCALE-UP college courses, classroom time is devoted to discussing and applying what students have learned.

McCammon calls it “flipping the classroom.”

“It comes down to how teachers are using their time because right now in most public schools we’re still lecturing the kids,” he said. “We still have rows. It still looks exactly like it did 50 years ago. But the culture of students has changed. That’s a significant problem.”

To illustrate an assignment that would rate highly on his FIZZ framework, McCammon suggested having students view a 10-minute video lecture on cell biology at the library, then write and publish a blog post on the topic. The video lectures are shorter, McCammon said, because they come without the interruptions — discipline, repetition — of the classroom. Students can watch video as many times as they’d like, even reviewing it during class if necessary.

Katie Gimbar, an algebra teacher at Durant Road Middle School, explains how and why she flipped her classroom.

This approach also closes the technology gap between the classroom and the world outside it, McCammon said. Students have to access web video outside class to see lectures. Activities on the high end of his FIZZ model often incorporate technologies students have grown accustomed to in the outside world.

For teachers, going FIZZ is simpler than it may seem. All it takes is a whiteboard, a set of markers and an inexpensive video camera. On the FIZZ homepage, McCammon has posted step-by-step videos on how to flip classrooms.

Teachers at Raleigh’s Durant Road Middle School and Panther Creek High School flipped their classrooms earlier this year, McCammon said.

“Every teacher I’ve talked to who’s done this responds the same way,” he said. “Usually, the first thing they say is, ‘I’m not exhausted at the end of the day. This has changed my professional life.’”