Quality Teaching Time in Higher Education

03/15/2015 11:01 EDT | Updated 05/15/2015 05:59 EDT

How can we ensure that when students are engaged in their studies, they get the best possible chance to absorb and process all of the information which they receive when sitting in a class? I will be focusing on larger introductory classes in higher education in this article, since those are the courses which I teach at University level.

By "Quality Teaching Time," I mean the time in the class when the learning process is effective for the student. Any experienced teacher can tell when the class is restless and wants to be out of the room. Epidemics of dropped pencils, fidgeting, squeaking of chairs and clicking of binders are all symptoms of this. Whenever possible, as educators, we should strive to reduce this, preferably to zero. To do that we need to consider the way in which the class is taught, the design of the classroom, and the approach of the institution to timetabling and schedules.

My classes are what could loosely be described as "content heavy". They are survey courses of large swathes of introductory physics. Traditionally, this is taught straight from the textbook, and the student is not expected to have read the textbook before the class. This is in contrast to many other subjects, where the assigned books or readings should have been read beforehand, and the class is more of a discussion based format. There is a trend in many subjects, which is often described as "the Flipped Classroom", to get the students to read ahead, and then present them with activities in the classroom other than the traditional "chalk and talk" methods. This probably is a more effective use of teaching time, but there are several problems with the Flipped Classroom.

1. Increased preparation time for the teacher. To prepare much material in advance is a major undertaking. For Faculty who also have research and committee work, as well as teaching responsibilities, this may be so great, that they are unable to consider this type of teaching. This is also relevant when the class is taught by a contract instructor, who may only teach the course once. The investment in time from them to prepare the class will be out of all proportion to the remuneration provided. Similarly, permanent staff with a busy research agenda will have difficulty allocating enough time to develop the necessary resources.

2. Scalability. If more student-instructor interaction is required, then the class size has to be fairly limited. If larger classes are taught this way, then often extra teaching assistant support would be needed to make it effective. In my particular field, my experience is that around 20 students can be supervised effectively by each classroom instructor or TA.

3. Ensuring that the background reading or study has been carried out. This probably involves setting some sort of quiz or test, either in the classroom session, or more likely as some sort of online activity.

So you can see that quality teaching time may well cost more in terms of extra staff cost, and extra time devoted to the teaching. But, you have to pay for quality.

My own solution to try and make my classes more simulating and relevant, this has been to modify my traditional lecture class. I now rotate activities every ten minutes or so, in order to keep within average attention span limits, and use think-pair-share instruction (often called peer-instruction), where the students discuss solutions to problems amongst themselves, and help each other reach the correct conclusions. Educational research shows that this is a more effective method of teaching than the traditional lecture format. I usually do a ten minute presentation, and then set a problem for the student to work on. In addition to these, I also used internet based resources, such as animations which demonstrate certain physical principles, or YouTube videos. In an ideal world, I would also do actual demonstrations of physical principles using equipment set up in the lecture room. This depends on the proximity of the lecture room to the Physics department where the equipment is based, and the portability of the equipment.

This brings me on to placement of lecture rooms on campus. I believe that every discipline which might use lecture demonstrations involving equipment, should have a lecture theatre in their own departmental building, with additional nearby space to store demonstration equipment. Certainly all science and engineering departments should have these facilities. This would allow an enhanced teaching experience in those classes. I used to work extensively with classroom demonstrations, and they are satisfying for the students and for the instructor (when they work). They are also a shift in activity, and can provide a memorable experience which teaches something. Making someone's hair stand on end with a Van de Graaff generator, for instance, is far better as live theatre, than it is seen on a video clip on a screen.

Now we should consider the design of the room. The traditional lecture room is extremely badly laid out when we want to have students interacting with each other. With students sitting in long rows, they can interact easily with only the two people on either side. Even talking to people in front or behind them requires a lot of twisting. This would be bad enough for able-bodied students, for those confined to wheel-chairs (and often banished to the peripheries of the classrooms because of the layout), this is very unsatisfactory. An ideal arrangement would be to seat four to six students around a table, so that they can easily form a discussion group, but can still see the front of the classroom. Naturally this takes more space than a traditional lecture room, and so is more costly to build. It is also difficult for TAs and instructors to circulate around a room with parallel rows of students. At the very least, removing a few rows of seats would help greatly. The back row, usually against the back wall of the lecture theatre would be the first target, so that instructional staff can at least circulate around the room, rather than just move up or down the aisles. The room also needs for more power outlets than at present. We need to recognize that students are bringing powered devices into class, and may need to charge them up during the class. There is a whole debate about whether laptops and phones should be allowed in classrooms. I tend to the view that they are inevitable, and we should embrace technological change. I use a classroom response system where students signal an answer to a set problem by using their smart phones, tablets or computers. I am not against other instructors forbidding their use, but I'd like the rooms equipped to facilitate the use, should I choose to do so.

We should consider the length of the courses themselves. The standard unit of teaching is now typically taught over one semester, and would be three hours per week in the lecture room. In addition, in science courses, there are also another three hours in laboratory or other tutorial related activities. This goes over a four month period, typically with classes for thirteen weeks. Then there is a period of final exams. In addition to this, many courses also have "mid-term" exams half way through. This inevitably throws all courses into confusion, as students not only have to carry out their normal work load, but also revise and prepare for several exams. Students taking a full course load take five or even six courses simultaneously. This requires a great deal of time management and usually means students skip regular classes to prepare for the mid-term exams. Once again, this is not a very effective use of teaching time. Nobody is gaining anything.

At Carleton for the last year or so, we have broken up each term with a week's break, so that usually there is a "catch-up" pause in the frenetic activity. I suggest formally making the actual basic course unit much shorter and more intensive, so that students would take six hours of classes for seven weeks, followed by the final exams. This would allow much greater flexibility in timetabling, and allow rooms to be used more effectively, and allow students to plan their working time effectively. Since most students also now have some sort of part-time work to support themselves, this flexibility would enable them to balance their time commitments much more effectively. This is hardly world shattering reorganization: our summer courses are already taught in that format for precisely that reason! Why not extend it to the rest of the year too?

Finally, I'd like to consider the timetabling and scheduling of classroom time.

1. The teenage brain is not set up for early morning starts. Classes at 8.30 in the morning are often thinly attended. I would prefer a later start, so that the younger students will attend, and be alert enough to learn something. It is not effective learning, if half of the class is absent. Upper year courses could probably still be scheduled for early starts.

2. Shorter classes. Given that the average attention span is 10-15 minutes at most, a traditional 75-80 minute lecture is not quality learning time. Students will drift in and out of an attentive state. As stated above, I take measures to try and prevent that, but many instructors do not.

3. Breaks between classes. Sufficient time to recover between classes, as well as get from one class to another, will give students the chance to get back into an effective learning mode. On an extended campus, the distance between classrooms can be quite considerable, and if all classes finish at the same time, then traffic congestion becomes an issue. Having staggered class times might be an administrative nightmare, but it would facilitate better commuting between classes. Personally, I would advocate 15 minutes between classes which are 45 minutes long.

4. Lunch breaks. Scheduling students for many consecutive hours of classes with no chance for a coffee break, lunch break or other down time is very counter-productive. If you have to teach in the afternoon, you can see that some students are actually exhausted, and most definitely not in peak learning condition. It is extremely tiring to absorb and process a large amount of information continuously. A sensible approach would be to make sure that nobody did more than two consecutive classes.

Now, these measures might look like inefficiencies, when viewed from the eye of administration. We now have less teaching time, more breaks and need more lecture rooms to accommodate all of the classes. But it would lead to students being more refreshed, better able to absorb and process their classes, and so gain in quality teaching time. Anglo-Saxon work culture has an obsession with "Being seen to be working long hours". Why not work shorter hours, but more effectively? Quality, not quantity should be the order of the day.

I've been teaching and studying how to teach effectively for over ten years now, and some of these suggestions can be implemented without significant cost. Others do require an additional investment in learning spaces which are actually designed for efficient learning. Most lecture rooms in most Universities do not do this. A great deal could be done simply by rearranging the seating. So let's teach more intelligently.