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US Universities look beyond the lecture

The lecture hall is under attack.

Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away.

The faculty at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has dedicated this academic year to finding alternatives to the lecture in those subjects. Johns Hopkins, Harvard University and even the White House have hosted events in which scholars have assailed the lecture.

Lecture classrooms are the big box retailers of academia, paragons of efficiency. One professor can teach hundreds of students in a single room, trailed by a retinue of teaching assistants. But higher education leaders increasingly blame the format for high attrition in science and math classes.

They say the lecture is a turn-off, higher education at its most passive, leading to frustration and bad grades in highly challenging disciplines.

“Just because teachers say something at the front of the room doesn’t mean that students learn,” said Diane Bunce, a chemistry professor at Catholic University in Washington. “Learning doesn’t happen in the physical space between the instructor and the student. Learning happens in the student’s mind.”

One goal of the reform movement is to break up vast classrooms. But just as important, experts say, is to rethink the way large classes are taught: to improve, if not replace, the lecture model. Faculty are learning to make courses more active by seeding them with questions, ask-your-neighbor discussions and instant surveys.

This ferment is also rippling through lecture halls in the humanities. But policymakers and university leaders are giving the question extra attention in science, technology, engineering and math, the fields collectively known as STEM.

About one-third of students enter college aspiring to STEM majors. Of that group, less than half complete a degree in a STEM field. Some migrate to the humanities. Others drop out. There are myriad reasons for the mass exodus. The material is demanding. Math-science professors tend to be tough graders. Not everyone can go to a top-flight medical school.

But college leaders are now turning a critical eye to the lecture itself. “We need to think about what happens when students have a bad experience with the course work,” Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said last month in a speech at Johns Hopkins.

The lecture backlash signals an evolving vision of college as participatory exercise. Gone are the days when the professor could recite a textbook in class. The watchword of today is “active learning.” Students are working experiments, solving problems, answering questions — or at least registering an opinion on an interactive “smart board” with an electronic clicker.

Since the 1990s, research on pedagogy has shifted from what instructors teach to what students learn. And studies have shown students in traditional lecture courses learn comparatively little. “You have a professor reading a book to you. It should be insulting,” said Harvard physicist Eric Mazur. “But this model is so ingrained.”

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