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This issue of CDTL Brief on Engaging Students features articles by colleagues and a student on how to engage students in the learning process at different levels.

May 2009, Vol. 12 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Designing Interactive Spaces for Teaching and Learning
 
Associate Professor Chng Huang Hoon
Director, CDTL
 

When it comes to promoting interactive teaching and learning, a little change goes a long way.

Recently, I read an article describing how teachers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have gone back to basics, to using blackboard to teach physics by employing a method called Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL). In this article, Rimer (2009) detailed how introductory physics has traditionally been taught “in a vast windowless amphitheater”, accommodating as many as 300 undergraduates to the shift towards smaller classes that has been instituted in an effort to teach science better. According to the report, MIT has gone the way of “smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning”. What began as an experiment that faced much resistance, even from students in the early years, has now become an accepted practice, welcomed by the majority of students and professors. Attendance is said to have improved enormously and failure rate has dropped significantly (from 12% to 4%) since the introduction of such interactive, student-centric teaching methods. This trend is adopted in many other institutions in the US, but in the case of MIT, what has resulted is described as below:

At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required—classical mechanics and electromagnetism—but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers. Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups. Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

To a large extent, even though classes are just as big in NUS, and often bigger, many of our colleagues here already practise some form of interactive, collaborative teaching and learning method in their classrooms. I can cite a number of examples. One, the successful use of buzz-group activities in lecture settings as big as 300 to 400 students have been reported by various colleagues, including Associate Professor Millie Rivera from the Communications and New Media Programme in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). Millie says she does a ‘buzz moment’ (read her article here) on the very first day of the semester with her 450-student lectures. In her words:

I love doing this! At first students are not sure that I really mean it when I tell them to talk to one another in the lecture session, but once they realise I am serious, they enjoy it. The activity takes no more than 5–7 minutes, but it creates a real opportunity for interaction in the big lecture. It’s one of the things students in my large lectures enjoy most.

Two, where the TEAL classroom has employed wireless personal response clickers, mobile phone technology has been exploited to enable an instant student feedback system during lectures in the Faculty of Engineering in NUS. Associate Professor Arthur Tay from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering says:

The use of this real-time feedback system using SMS technology has provided us useful feedback on student’s understanding of key concepts from lectures. Both the students and lecturer can see the results instantly via the computer or their mobile phones. The participation rate is usually about 80–90%, much more than the usual ‘show of hands’.

And three, an FASS colleague, Associate Professor John Richardson, recently showed me a specially designed classroom with white boards mounted all round the seminar room, and tables configured in the style of an oval meeting room seating format to facilitate interactive teaching and learning.

I wish to make two simple points. One, a little change can bring about amazing transformation in classroom dynamics. Just mounting white boards on all available wall space around a room can do wonders to one’s teaching and our students’ learning. John (and his co-lecturer, Professor K.P. Mohanan) testified to the effectiveness of such a simple move in an email:

I was never entirely convinced by the argument for the advantages of boards on different walls, but I am now… The different walls broke up the front-to-back direction of the teaching and really got the students involved.

Of course, these classroom settings worked not simply because white boards were positioned on all available wall space. The physical arrangement of the boards, the deployment of specific technology such as mobile phone feedback system, and the round-table seating arrangement in these classrooms would mean that the teachers involved have thought through how a particular teaching methodology could work for the class (i.e. one that privileges group work, dialogue and active exchanges, students’ participation and feedback), how best to present and teach the material, and that the whole thinking behind such a methodology is the emphasis on teacher and students discovering the learning process together, interactively and collaboratively.

My other point is, in spite of various kinds of physical and financial constraints (we do not enjoy donations to the tune of US$10 million like what MIT reportedly received to equip its two stateof- the-art TEAL classrooms), many of our NUS colleagues are able to achieve an impressive level of interactive, active learning in their classrooms. Those of us who have been teaching for some time know that to effect good teaching, and therefore learning, both affective and physical barriers have to be reduced and student involvement is crucial. The more involved students are in their own learning, the more likely students will learn well and will also enjoy learning. Going the way of the blackboard or white board in most cases today, where the doing/ demonstration is a central part of the learning, is therefore a winner.

The set up of classrooms today (without the benefit of a wireless microphone or a clicker) literally straps us to our computer station and this prevents us from moving freely around the classroom. It is perhaps time to go back to basics—to think about how we can inject student interaction and active learning in our classroom. And if mounting a few more white boards on all available wall space in each of our seminar rooms is all it takes, why not do it?

As for moving towards smaller classes like what MIT has done, this is of course a familiar and longstanding issue at NUS. Many of us would, I am sure, welcome a reduction in class size; but we also acknowledge the difficulties in making that a reality in all classes. But if this other ‘little’ move can reap countless rewards in improving the quality of our teaching and the quality of education NUS students receive, again, it is a goal that is worth actively working towards. Debates about resources and student numbers however, are perhaps issues best handled by our senior administrators. As teachers, it is our duty to highlight good teaching and learning experiences we see in our classrooms so as to make an argument for alternative, if more basic ways of teaching and learning.

Reference

Rimer, S. (2009, January 13). At M.I.T., large lectures are going the way of the blackboard. The New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2009 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/us/13physics.html


Acknowledgement

The author thanks the various colleagues who provided input to this article: John Richardson, Millie Rivera, Arthur Tay and Wu Siew Mei

 
 
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Inside this issue
Encouraging Youth Engagement in the Public Square
   
Designing Interactive Spaces for Teaching and Learning
   
Make Large Classes Engaging
With ‘Quick-ins’
   
Learning Spaces
   
Maximising Opportunities for
Experiential Learning at NUS