The Case for Hybrid Courses
Suggestions for Optimizing the Time We Spend with Our Student
St. Michael’s College
One Winooski Park, Colchester, VT 05439
The author reviews his own experience in the development and teaching of the hybrid course format in which the student receives instructional material, including lectures, off-campus, but also comes to campus regularly to interact with classmates and the instructor. The benefits to this approach are explored in light of how students learn through a two-step process of input followed by output. Examples of step 1 learning include reading the textbook and listening to lectures. Examples of step 2 learning include homework assignments, practice exams, and class discussions. Of these two steps, the second is more challenging for the student and best accomplished during class under the expert guidance of the course instructor. Strategies for improving step 1 and step 2 learning both in and out of the classroom are presented. The case is made that the hybrid format helps to optimize student learning and that for colleges to remain viable, this model of teaching needs to be incorporated as much as possible into every course of study offered to students.
In the 1990s as a beginning professor at Leeward Community College of the University of Hawaii, I had the opportunity to develop a distance learning chemistry course with broadcast cable television as the means of delivering lectures to students. For my traditional on-campus sections I found it rather odd that I was merely repeating that which I had just recorded in the studio. This led me to require my on-campus students to watch the recorded lectures before coming to class. These lectures were made available through our campus library in addition to being broadcast during the evening hours through cable television. For my on-campus students, this enabled class to be used primarily as a time of interactive study and hands-on/mind-on activities, which gave these students a tremendous learning advantage. To help make up the difference, my off-campus students were thus required to meet six times on campus for weekend recitation/laboratory periods, which were in addition to the take home labs I had developed. The end result was a situation where my on-campus students benefited from the best of the distance learning format (anytime, anywhere lectures), while my off-campus students benefited from the best of the traditional on-campus format (face-to-face interactions among the students and the instructor).
In 1999, I resigned from tenure at Leeward to dedicate myself full time to the development of textbooks and multimedia materials. By 2003 I was also teaching as an adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. Upon teaching at St. Mike’s, I had just developed a studio re-make of my recorded class lectures, which were then available on a set of 12 CD-roms accompanying the first edition of my Conceptual Chemistry textbook (1). To my great advantage, I also had in hand a copy of K. Patricia Cross and Thomas Angelo’s Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for Faculty (2). This handbook is full of ideas of what can be done during class while not lecturing. The stage was thus set for me to continue teaching an on-campus class using a “hybrid” approach that today is also known as the “flipped classroom” where students go home for their lectures (and textbook readings) and come to class to study under the expert guidance of the course instructor.
For myself, Cross and Angelo’s handbook was a pivotal launching pad. No longer tied down by the traditional lecture format, I was able to adopt and adapt their ideas for classroom activities. I implemented ideas from other sources, such as published articles, and was inspired to develop a library of activities of my own, most all of them team-based. Over the years, my courses have evolved to the point where students come to each class not knowing what new activity I might be throwing at them. Sometimes I don’t know myself as this type of format allows for great flexibility neatly tied to the student’s immediate needs. Inevitably, each semester there are new ideas—some work quite well, others flop. I keep track of these ideas in my personal teaching journal to which I add entries after each class period. Some of the better activities I have posted on my website, ConceptualAcademy.com/student-centered-learning. Suffice to say, after teaching these same courses year after year, nothing is stale. Rather, the courses remain fertile ground for the development of new curriculum. They are exciting to teach and, as evidenced by my course evaluations, continue to be well received by my students.
What becomes abundantly clear upon teaching through this approach ithe distinction between “content delivery” and “content facilitation”. Through content delivery the student passively receives information, which is done well-enough outside the classroom. Content facilitation is where students attempt to articulate what they think they have learned from the delivered content. This is a more difficult phase of learning best accomplished within the classroom.
Having practiced this approach for some time, I just can’t imagine doing it any other way. This is my perspective as I see many courses are still taught primarily through a traditional lecture format where peer-to-peer interactions are minimal. Why would faculty not flock to this modernized age-old format, which is the basis of any apprenticeship? There are many potential barriers, including a lack of resources to develop a set of online lectures. Notably, instructors have other duties, such as service to the department, the school, and their research. Little time is thus available to re-develop a course that seems to be going well enough. Also, most students are initially uncomfortable interacting with their peers, especially when it involves learning new material. They may prefer a lecture where they need only sit, listen, and write notes. For instructors, it can be fun and flattering to be on center stage. If the students prefer lectures, and the instructors enjoy giving them, why change?
To answer that question is the main intent of this chapter, which begins by exploring the nature of how we as humans learn. Effective strategies for learning are identified and suggestions provided for implementing those strategies both in and out of the classroom. The case is made that learning is optimized in a hybrid model where students are introduced to academic content outside of the classroom. Class time is then used as an opportunity for students to articulate and apply what they think they have learned. This article concludes with comments about how there is much more at stake besides optimized student learning. Today, the content provided in lectures is easily obtained for free through the internet. Why then should students pay sky-high tuition? To remain viable, schools and colleges need to answer that question to the satisfaction of discerning students and their families.
Learning: A Two-Step Process
I view learning as a two-step process. In the first step, the student is introduced to the material (content delivery). The second step begins when the student tries to articulate that material in his or her own words (content facilitation). The first step is an input process and also relatively easy to accomplish. Examples include reading a textbook, attending a lecture, or watching a video lesson. The second step is an output process, which requires significantly more effort. Examples include solving problems or explaining ideas to a classmate.
Without guidance, many, if not most, students tend to restrict themselves to the first step of learning. For example, rather than working on questions at the back of the textbook chapter, a student might instead read the assigned textbook chapter not once, but three times. Reading the chapter multiple times may provide a sense of command over the material, but it is no guarantee for a deeper understanding of the concepts and how these concepts can be applied. Students who restrict themselves to the first step often fall into the trap of not knowing that they don’t know the material well enough. They remain ignorant until the shock of the exam provides a dose of reality.
Most all students struggle with the second step of learning. This difficult second step can feel like a step backward from the perceived gains of the first step. This second step can feel uncomfortable and discouraging because it brings to bear all that the student doesn’t understand. The student might be thinking: “I read the textbook and listened to the lecture and I understood. Now I’m working on these problems and I’m all confused. I hate this homework. It’s so unproductive. Why do we have to do this? I wish we could have just stopped with the lecture.”
The student should know, however, that these exact struggles are essential. When learning is easy, so is forgetting. When learning involves personal effort, the memory of what has been learned becomes long lasting. This is how a healthy memory system works—incorporating new ideas into our already existing mental framework requires effort.
Kinds of Memory
We have two kinds of memory: short and long (3). Short-term memory is held within the area of the prefrontal cortex. On average, each of us can hold no more than about 4 to 7 pieces of information at once within short-term memory. This explains the best practices of having no more than 6 items on a PowerPoint slide and avoiding long paragraphs when writing.
Short-term memory, often referred to as “working memory”, is our capacity to hold onto ideas and relationships in an immediate time frame. Most all of us are severely limited in our short-term memory, which is leaky by design. This is not a fault, but a feature in that it helps us to make sense of the present moment without the distractions of the many earlier moments and potential future ones.
Long-term memory is held throughout the brain, but regulated by the hippocampus, which plays the role of traffic director. Long-term memory is that reservoir of knowledge and skills residing outside our conscious thought. While short-term memory is severely limited, our potential for building long-term memories is many orders of magnitude greater, if not boundless.
When we talk about learning, we’re talking about consolidating information that passes through short-term memory into that huge reservoir of long-term memory. Consolidation begins with the input processes of step one. The memories, however, remain tenuous until reinforced by the output processes of step two.
However, there is much more involved in learning than just lodging a new thought into some corner of the brain. No thought exists in a vacuum. Rather, each thought is pretty well defined by all the surrounding thoughts. Our brains work by relating this to that and that to this. In addition to securing a thought to memory, the student needs the opportunity to build the connections between the new thought and older ones—the new idea needs to be personalized in the context of what the student already knows. Experience is perhaps the best avenue to the building of these connections, which is how hands-on activities and group interactions are effective at strengthening the student’s ability to learn.
The student needs to work with the new material in order to grasp its full meaning. This work, however, requires the expenditure of mental energy, which is something most students tend to avoid. For example, homework provides a strong learning opportunity, but it is also often dreaded. Also, students benefit when they pause periodically as they read the textbook to rephrase what they think they just read, especially if they do so aloud. Students, however, will often prefer to read right through without stopping. Homework and pausing to articulate are very effective means of learning, but they both require an added effort.
Because we look to others for motivation, it works well when students are able to exert this added effort together within teams under the expert guidance of the course instructor. In this environment, students can work on problems together and learn from each other’s insights, just as they can practice articulating, aloud, what they think they understand. All of this helps to secure the new ideas to the student’s long-term memory and in a way that these ideas can be readily accessed by short-term working memory.
Strategies for Step 1 Learning
There are specific strategies students can use to support the consolidation of new ideas to memory. What follows are brief descriptions of strategies focused on the first step of learning where students are introduced to new material through the textbook or through lectures. These step one strategies are discussed below in terms of how they can be implemented both outside and inside the classroom.
The Textbook: Outside the Classroom
The traditional textbook consists of densely written paragraphs rich with information. This is especially true for the sciences. Students should thus be re-assured that reading a textbook slowly for comprehension is a best practice. This is particularly important for students within an introductory science course.
Students might also be advised to throw away their highlighters. Highlighting a sentence gives the impression of having understood a sentence when, in fact, it’s just a sentence the student thought was pertinent. Of course, in a densely written textbook, all sentences are pertinent. There is a much greater benefit when the student instead writes notes summarizing the content. This is best done in a notebook that can be used as a study-aid before the exam.
The student might also be encouraged to read through each reading assignment only once, revisiting passages as necessary while working on step 2 activities such as homework. If the student is not taking notes, then he or she should be directed to pause periodically to rephrase the main points aloud.
The instructor may expect students to read their reading assignments. But then there’s reality. Textbooks are expensive and often shared among students, so the textbook is not always available. The textbook may have been rented from an online company, which means it might still be “in the mail” for the first couple weeks of class. If the reading assignment is online, the student might not always have online access. There are students with reading disabilities and students who tend to procrastinate. The list of potential barriers goes on. It is important that the instructor remain mindful of these barriers. Also, making copies of the reading assignments available through the campus library is always a good idea.
The Textbook: Inside the Classroom
Clearly, class should not be a time dedicated to reading the textbook. Why? By simply reading in class, the students are not taking advantage of the instructor’s presence. But there’s another important reason: students are also not taking advantage of the fact that there are classmates with whom there is an opportunity for team-based learning and other peer-to-peer activities.
Students can still be asked to bring their textbooks to class. Perhaps a brief reading of an important paragraph would be of benefit, say, with one student reading it aloud to the whole class. More significantly, every textbook has a healthy dose of questions at the back of each chapter. Grouped into pre-assigned teams, student can work on these questions together. Knowing this will be happening, the student—prone to the powers of peer pressure—will be more inclined to read the textbook prior to class.
Of course, getting the students to read before class is much like pushing running water uphill—it’s a constant battle. The moment there is no need for the students to come to class prepared is the moment they don’t come to class prepared. Keeping class time focused on step 2 learning helps to motivate students in this regard. It works well to begin class with a short quiz that assesses the material about to be covered. Toward this I developed what I call the minute quiz. Students have 60 seconds to answer a single multiple choice question, closed notes, closed book, closed neighbor. I then pass around boxes labeled: 50/20. Students who place their quiz into this box get 50 points (full credit) for a correct answer and 20 points for a wrong answer. An unsure or less than risk-taking student, however, can hold onto his or her quiz for a second, and much noisier round, which is open-book, open-notes, open-neighbor. After this second round I collect all remaining quizzes in boxes labeled: 40/30, which means 40 points for a correct answer and 30 points for a wrong answer. Note: doing this for every class makes the quiz too predictable and students begin to groan, which is why we do this quiz no more than 10 times over the whole semester.
The Lecture: Outside the Classroom
Actors watch video recordings of their performance to get the brutal feedback they need for improving themselves. In many ways, a lecture is a performance. A novice lecturer would be well advised to record each lecture and then be brave to actually watch these recordings. Once the performance has been perfected, the lecturer faces an epic choice: continue giving these perfected lectures for the rest of his or her academic career, or create a good recording of these lectures so that students, from one semester to the next, can watch them online.
The upfront time and energy involved in creating, producing, and editing a semester’s worth of lecture videos is substantial. Of course, these lectures would ideally compare, production-wise, with the rapidly growing number of free online info-videos from organizations such as NASA, TED, NatGeo, as well as from creative individuals who are now YouTube stars. But producing media is not what the typical instructor was hired to do. Furthermore, the instructor most likely teaches more than one course. Should all courses be similarly produced? What of the instructor’s other duties, such as service to the department, the college, and research? Mostly, time the instructor spends on producing media is time not spent working directly with his or her students who rely on the instructor for much more than the lectures.
The barriers to “simply” video taping one’s lectures are formidable, but they’re not insurmountable. Production quality is important, but the culture of YouTube has also come to embrace amateur production quality where the content is what matters most. There are also well-established companies who work with colleges to develop their online curriculum, which doubles as promotional material for the college. For an instructor looking for a good sabbatical project, there’s ample opportunity in developing online content. Lectures need not, and perhaps should not, be of a talking head in front of a white board. Rather, with screencasting software, content-experts have an affordable means of producing creative, informative, and professional quality lessons.
Not every instructor is expected to write a textbook. Usually, the instructor adopts a textbook written by a colleague who has dedicated his or her career to the creation and continued development of that textbook. Likewise, not every instructor is expected to create a library of video lessons. Textbook publishers are becoming aware of the need for video lessons that complement their textbooks. So just as the instructor can select a textbook from competing publishers, the instructor can also select a library of professional quality video lessons tailored to the needs of the course.
The Lecture: Inside the Classroom
We are wired to learn from stories. We’ve been listening to them around the campfire likely for the past 100,000 years or longer. Our brains are well equipped to learn by listening to and watching others as they describe new ideas. Lectures are important, likely more important than textbooks as a means of introducing students to new ideas.
Many students refuse to read the textbook before listening to the lecture. A reason for this is that the textbook is difficult to comprehend. But after a good lecture, sentences within the textbook begin to make more sense. The lecture presentation (be it live or online) provides context, which makes reading the textbook more efficient.
A problem with reading the textbook after lecture, however, is that questions tend not to arise when the student is first being introduced to new material. The student has entered “input mode” where he or she is simply trying to absorb the instructor’s presentation as much as possible with the hope of making sense of it later. It’s usually after the student has begun to grapple with the information that questions start to arise. When the student reads the textbook before class, those questions likely arise in the classroom with the instructor there to provide assistance
The same holds true for when the lectures themselves are also provided before class. Knowing the students have read the textbook and watched the lecture before class, the instructor is free to do more gauging and development of student understanding and one-on-one interactions than he or she is otherwise free to do. We need lectures. But today, lectures no longer need to be given during class.
Paradoxically, all the distinct advantages of a live class lecture are also the arguments for putting that live lecture online. In a live lecture the instructor can slow down as needed, jump ahead as needed, or stop for a demonstration as needed dictated by the pulse he or she feels coming from the students in real time. With that same lecture carefully crafted for the online environment, the student can slow down as needed, jump ahead as needed, and re-play that fascinating demonstration (seen up close) as needed.
If the lecturer has posted a full semester of lectures online, should the lecturer stop lecturing? Clearly the lecturer could pull back on the live lectures during class so students have incentive to watch them online before class. But this is not to say the instructor never lectures. It’s best to think in terms of the percentage of class time spent lecturing, on average, over the course of the semester. For example, before the lectures went online, the instructor may have lectured close to 90% of the time. Then after the lectures went online, the instructor is lecturing only 50% of the time (on average). After a number of years of developing the course, that is, developing what students are actually doing while the instructor is NOT lecturing, then the amount of lecturing may move down to around 30% of the time—on average, because some content requires more step 1 content delivery during class and other content requires less.
What will the instructor be doing with all this class time if not lecturing? The instructor will be moderating a student-centered activity during class, which can be as simple as a set of worksheets or “homework” problems. (I wish we could call these “classwork” problems.) The instructor roams from team to team answering questions as they arise or just listens carefully as students work together. For a particular concept, the instructor may come to realize that all teams are asking the same basic question. So all students are brought to attention. The instructor delivers what might be called a “mini-lecture”, which is targeted to what the students need to know at that critical moment. The instructor is up at the white board lecturing but maybe this only takes 10 minutes before students are back to work articulating ideas themselves. Class time has evolved into a glorified study session where the focus is on the second step of learning (output). This was made possible by lectures being made available online. This is the essence of a “hybrid” course.
Strategies for Step 2 Learning
There have been recent discoveries in cognitive science about how people learn. The book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel compiles these discoveries and shows how to apply them to the everyday world of education with remarkable results (4). Notable organizations already serving as a resource for instructors seeking to implement these evidence-based principles in science education include the POGIL project as well as the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (5, 6). These and a growing number of similar organizations are working toward the common goal of boosting the effectiveness of the time students and instructors spend together within the classroom. This boost in effectiveness arises as the instructor’s role shifts from delivering academic content (step 1) toward helping students to learn that content (step 2).
Some of the major learning strategies spelled out by the authors of Make it Stick include delayed retrieval, interleaving, elaboration, generation, reflection, and calibration. What follows is my review of these strategies and how, based upon my teaching experience, they can be effectively employed in the classroom where the emphasis is on the second step of learning. Students can use these strategies outside the classroom too. But it’s during class that these strategies shine as students employ them working together in teams under the direction of the course instructor.
Some of these strategies are counter-intuitive and not readily accepted by students without explanation. Thus, at the beginning of the semester, it’s important to reveal to students the specific strategies you intend to implement and how these strategies will be to their benefit.
The effort to recall a memory strengthens its hold in long-term memory. Channels through which a memory is raised to the level of working memory are also reinforced. It’s a good idea for students to keep asking themselves: “What did I just learn?” and then to actually answer that question. This works well when the student is alone reading the textbook. It works even better in groups of students where the textbook is open and one student asks of another: “What did you learn from this chapter section?” It’s a tough question—very tough. But the effort to recall “that which was just learned” is not wasted effort. It is essential.
Then there’s the question of time delay. How soon after having read a textbook passage should this question be asked? As described in Make It Stick, allowing some forgetting to occur is key, but not so much forgetting that the student must essentially start over. For new material, a delay of a few minutes to a day works well.
Retrieving that which was just learned is important. Even more important is to allow for the passage of time so that some forgetting can occur. It’s counter-intuitive that forgetting helps us to remember. But after the forgetting there must be retrieval and it’s the act of retrieving foggy information that helps consolidate that information into long-term memory. This is exactly what happens when the student comes to class having read the textbook and watched the lecture the previous day or evening. They arrive to class with a nebulous understanding. That understanding, however, begins to take solid form during class as the students work together to recall information.
The human brain works on many levels, including conscious and subconscious. After the student finishes studying, the brain works on that topic at deeper levels. Meanwhile, working memory is idle but ready to go with the next task. In fact, a new subject is welcomed for its fresh ideas. This is called “interleaving”, which means topics are being switched within a single study session. It’s the perfect partner to delayed retrieval—while the student takes a break on one subject, he or she can efficiently begin the process of learning another.
Studying at home, the student can switch between, say, chemistry and history. The student should overcome the urge to “nail down the chemistry” before moving onto the history, or vice versa. Again, it’s counter-intuitive, but a bit of both (interleaving) is a better approach.
The interleaving strategy can be applied within the classroom as well. Rather than dedicating an entire class to just one topic, multiple topics can be introduced—even those the student may think are unrelated. This is similar to how a study session for a final exam might work. There’s a broad range of topics to study. Students would rightfully complain if all time were spent on just one topic. The same is true for any study session.
Again, it’s counter-intuitive. Say, for example, only 15 minutes are spent studying electronegativity. Perhaps everyone is going to want to spent the next 5 minutes studying this idea further so as to have it down cold before moving on. But in doing so, working memory may become saturated and the efficiency of consolidating ideas to long-term memory drops rapidly. The best time to stop the study of a topic is when students feel around 70 to 80% confident that they “got it”. They’re really close. That’s when the instructor switches gears and moves on to the next topic, closely related or wildly not.
There is some degree of relationship among all topics, especially in a single course. Mixing things up, without losing the long arc of concept development, sets the stage for students to realize this interconnectedness. Imagine talking with students about organic chemistry one moment and then switching to the life cycle of stars in the next. How could stars possibly be connected to organic chemistry? Or to photosynthesis? Or to the burning of a campfire? Or to the luxuries of modern living? Or to global climate change? Or to a rock at the bottom of the ocean? From the point of view of a trained chemist, all of these are clearly related.
Everything is connected. Students enjoy learning about this from their instructor, but also when they discover it on their own.
To “elaborate” is to explore further and to discover connections and deeper meanings. Students elaborate when they describe how a new idea connects to their everyday world, or as they draw a concept map, or as they prepare a cheat sheet for an exam. Elaboration strengthens the association of a new idea to existing ones providing the new idea with an address within long-term memory. With this address the new idea is easier to retrieve.
Elaboration is an output process and, like any output process, is greatly supported when performed within a community setting. Students working in teams can explain how they understood the new material. They can collaborate to create a single detailed concept map. They can compare and contrast each other’s cheat sheets. Students should ask each other questions such as: Why is this concept so important? Can you explain this illustration to me? How did you come up with the answer to this question at the back of the chapter? Of course, communication is a two-way street. While articulating a new idea is a valuable experience for the student, so is the process of listening patiently and with respect, which is a skill that can also be reinforced.
In the lingo of learning, to “generate” is to come up with your own answer. Initially, it doesn’t matter whether your answer is right or wrong. What matters is that you gave it your best shot. For example: Cheetahs are built to run, fish are built to swim, humans are built to ___________.
A simple fill in the blank can be most effective. Look carefully at what you need to do to come up with an answer on your own. Now contrast that to what it would be like if the answer were simply given to you. The difference is substantial. Instructors know this well. They understand the greater value of a good question over a good answer. For the student, an answer matters more when it’s an answer he or she created. If the answer is given right away, then it’s cheap. In many ways, the mind places less value upon it. It is vital that the student’s answer is confirmed or corrected. It is equally important that the student become personally involved with that answer, which happens when the student generates the answer him or herself.
For the purposes of this chapter, the major question is where should this occur? Without guidance, it is easy for students to drift off course. So setting up a specific time and place where all students can benefit as guided by the course instructor is important. If not during class, these inquiry-based activities, such as those available through POGIL.org, can be employed during recitations or laboratory periods.
Humans are built to learn. But we don’t soak up information like a sponge soaks up water. Rather we build information into our minds. Just as no one can strengthen the muscles of an athlete but the athlete, no one can put information into the student’s mind but the student. There are many parallels between an athlete and the student. For both, performance improves markedly within a team environment under the direction of a critical yet caring coach.
To “reflect” is to give serious, careful thought and consideration. It’s a good idea to do this with one’s private life as happens in a diary or journal. But it’s also a good idea for students to use reflection as a study technique. For example, the student takes a break during a study session to reflect on the bigger picture. The student might ponder: “Why am I even doing this? How does this material relate to my long-term goals? Might these new ideas even be influencing my long-term goals, including my career interests?” The student eventually comes back to the nitty-gritty of the material, but first has to re-load into working memory where he or she left off, which is delayed retrieval.
Of all the techniques described in this chapter, reflection works best when the student is studying alone. Given the time crunch of a student’s academic schedule and the fullness of the student’s social life, I believe reflection is also the least likely study technique to be embraced by students outside of class. During class, however, students can be given a set of questions they need to answer in front of each other, such as: Which concepts did you find most confusing? Which concepts did you find most interesting? Why are we studying this material? How many hours did you spend reading the textbook last week? From reflection comes perspective.
For the instructor, reflection is also an important tool, especially as embodied by the teaching journal. After each class, the instructor can write in this journal what happened, what worked well, and what didn’t. New ideas brewing in the back of the instructor’s mind will percolate to the surface where they can then be fleshed out for implementation in a subsequent semester. Significantly, with this teaching journal, getting ready for each class is as easy as looking back to what happened the previous semester. Mistakes won’t be repeated and new ideas that were documented can see the light of day. This way, the course remains fun to teach and grows in quality from one year to the next.
Because of the added mental effort required, students will avoid reflection just as instructors will resist keeping a teaching journal. This is unfortunate because, over the long-term, reflection has much to offer. For humans, short-term solutions tend to take precedence. Being kind to our future selves is not a priority. We might reflect on that.
The brain is wired to make sense. It does what it can to make sense, even if that means contorting the truth. For example, as described in Make It Stick, airplane pilots are trained to trust their instruments. While flying through an overcast cloud, it might feel like the plane is moving straight, but it might be banking left or right or even flying upside down. The pilot wouldn’t know if not for the reference provided by the instrument panel. Most all pilot caused accidents occur when the pilot resorts to his or her intuitive sense of what’s happening over the instrument’s cold hard data.
Similarly, it’s all too easy to be fooled into thinking that our understandings are accurate. This gives us a confidence to not check ourselves before moving on. This is how misconceptions can last a lifetime.
All the previously described learning strategies would be for naught if one’s understandings were never “calibrated” to some external reference for accuracy. Fortunately, in any school there are very effective calibration instruments. These are homework assignments, quizzes and exams.
A student or group of students working on any question for practice must beware of the following trap: The student looks at a question and thinks, “No problem. Why waste my time answering this? I got it. I’ll just move on to the next question.” The student nonetheless needs to confirm his or her understanding. It’s one thing to think you know the answer. But it’s quite another to articulate the answer well and accurately. The student’s time won’t be wasted.
All instructors understand that quizzes and exams are just as useful for learning as they are for assessment. Most of the learning strategies outlined in this article are embodied by any quiz or exam. This is why instructors seek to give them—both as practice and for “real”.
An exam is brought to the next level of learning by implementing it through what is called a pyramid format. In this format the student takes the same exam three times in a single class period: first as an individual (closed book, 10 pts each question), then with a team (four students per team, 6 pts each question), then with the entire class (2 pts each question, majority wins). Correct answers are revealed during the final class phase. A student’s score is the sum of all three phases. After the exam, each student is given an “explanation sheet” where they can defend their wrong answers to potentially collect partial or full credit (reflection). This format can also be used for a practice exam where students add up their points but the points don’t count. Then in the next class, the format is repeated, but with different questions. This time the points count because it’s the “real” exam. You get to use your toughest questions in this exam format and the class average will still come out to be about 75%. By the end of the class, each student will have taken the exam three times and will know exactly how they performed.
For practice or for real or for both, the pyramid exam format is an ultimate individual and collaborative learning experience and can be repeated multiple times throughout the course. With four midterms, each with its own practice exam, this adds up to eight classes. That means eight classes with exams rather than lectures. It also means there will be material on these exams that the instructor did not directly tell the students. This is a tough psychological barrier for any instructor to overcome. The instructor might think: “How will students know the material if I, myself, didn’t actually tell it to them?” This question can be turned around: How will students be able to retain anything you actually tell them? Learning is so much stronger when we work to answer questions than when we relax to listen to answers. So what are students to do in class if the professor is not lecturing? Answering questions is a good answer. I should note that the pyramid practice exam is by far my students’ favorite class activity. They see it as an enjoyable and effective learning experience plus it is directly related to their course grade.
This article began by describing the nature of how we humans learn, which can be viewed as a two-step process of input followed by output. Both inputting and outputting information can be challenging. But of the two, outputting what you think you have learned is arguably more difficult, which explains why it is often neglected.
Students need to understand that when learning is easy, so is forgetting. How well an idea sticks is a function of the effort the learner puts into working with that idea. To learn well, the learner must move beyond the model that we absorb information like a sponge absorbs water.
Outputting information helps us to strengthen what we know. Consider the professor preparing the first lecture of his or her career. This professor is being challenged to output information in a way that is both eloquent and effective. The stakes are high, which makes preparing for this first lecture quite the learning experience—for the professor. Students should be given a similar opportunity to articulate what they think they have learned, right in the classroom, with their peers, under the expert guidance of the course instructor.
For each of us, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that you “got it” when an idea is sitting right there in short-term memory. But short-term memory is leaky by design. Ideas held within short-term memory naturally fade. To remain accessible for future reference, these ideas need to be consolidated to long-term memory, which has a massive capacity. Consolidating ideas to long-term memory is supported by effortful learning strategies such as delayed retrieval practice and interleaving.
Other techniques for the effective placement of ideas into long-term memory include elaboration, ________________, reflection, and calibration. Each of these practices require the active and personal engagement of the mind, which means they require effort. Mustering the required effort is facilitated when students work together in teams during class along with their instructor, who, in many ways, plays the role of a coach knowing when to interject and knowing when to remain silent.
The Case for Hybrid Courses
Imagine the frustration of the student who continually does poorly on quizzes and exams despite having worked so diligently. This student is aware of the need to work on problems. But, like any quiz or exam, this student perceives a set of problems as a form of assessment to be done only after learning has occurred, not as a means to the learning itself. Lacking confidence, the student keeps reading the chapter over and over because, frankly, how are you to solve the problems if you don’t yet understand the material? Time runs out and this student never gets to those end-of-chapter questions. This student never moves beyond the first step of learning, which explains the poor academic performance.
Here we have a case where the student does not know that he or she does not know how to study effectively. If it’s not known that there is a problem, then there’s slim chance of that problem being corrected. The student keeps reading the chapter over and over, but still performs poorly. Too often the conclusion is: “Well, I must not be very smart.” This creates an unfortunate feedback loop in which a lack of self-confidence begets an even worse performance, which begets a letter grade far below the student’s potential.
Too few students are experts at studying on their own. Students who are experts at studying have learned the relative importance of following through with step two activities. By incorporating step two activities right into the classroom, the instructor has a tremendous opportunity. Not only is the instructor helping the student to learn the material for that class, the instructor is providing the essential tools and the confidence all students need to do well in other classes and beyond.
Students should understand that long-term memory is like a scaffolding of ideas. To introduce a new idea is to find a place to hang that idea in an already existing scaffold. As you attach the new idea, you increase the size of the scaffold. This facilitates the incorporation of even more ideas. Learning becomes more efficient because it is easier to find a context for each new idea. The more you know, the more you can know. This is a desirable feedback loop. It has less to do with genetics and more to do with a history of healthy study habits. Humans have a great capacity to learn. When students complete a course with that sort of confidence, then the instructor has been most successful.
Students come to school or to college not just to learn specific subjects but for personal growth as well. It can be argued that this personal growth is the most important aspect of one’s education. This growth includes improvements in analytical, critical, and verbal reasoning skills, along with a boost in self-confidence from having successfully met well-placed challenges. The value of our teaching rests not only on our ability to help students learn content, but also on our ability to help students learn about themselves.
Instructors who are respected for the quality of their lectures might be given the resources to post those lectures online and encouraged to do so. With such resources available to all students, each instructor will be free to discover that his or her talents run much deeper than playing the sage on the stage. In this environment, the most valued talent of an instructor is the ability to work one-on-one with students helping them through the hurdles of step two learning. Hybrid courses provide these sorts of opportunities.
YouTube boasts more than 1 billion users; 1/7 of the world’s population (youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html). The number of hours people watch YouTube has been increasing by about 50% each month for the past several years. As of 2015, about 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Riding this trend are an exponentially growing number of “info-videos”. When a student wants to learn something, they need only look down at their smart phone. In fact, that’s the first thing they do.
Ideally, educational videos strong in accuracy and pedagogy will rise to the top of the search engines. But search engines work by popularity and commercial gain, not by accuracy and pedagogy. Given the sheer numbers and the way search engines function, there is a legitimate concern over the quality of online educational content the general public consumes at ever increasing rates. In short, our educational system is losing its ability to apply filters for quality assurance. What was once in the hands of schools and colleges is now rapidly shifting to the hands of internet savvy corporations, such as Apple and Google.
The professor who retains the traditional lecture format needs to recognize that he or she is already doing so along side the internet. A student, for example, might miss the lecture on electron-dot diagrams. No problem. There’s are about 19,000 search results for videos on electron-dot diagrams. How about Newton’s laws of motion? There are about 87,000 search results. How about symmetry operations in upper level inorganic chemistry? For that there are only about 1,300.
What would the general public think of higher education if all professors insisted on providing only traditional lectures for their classes? What happens to any product whose price keeps going up while its perceived value continues to decline? After the ceiling collapses, pundits would be calling it the burst of the education bubble. The internet profoundly disrupted the music industry. It’s on a path for doing the same for education, especially if the education system remains fixed on a model so easily replicated by YouTube.
Most colleges know well of the need to diversify from the traditional lecture-only classroom. This diversification would be of benefit to businesses seeking to employ the students who graduate from these colleges. In a world where knowledge is but a few finger strokes away, what businesses need most are employees with strong thinking and communication skills.
Society as a whole would also benefit. Do we move toward a world where to watch a video is to know, but to watch the video and actually read the book is to really know? This would be a world in which issues such as global climate change are no longer swayed by scientific research, but by popular vote where votes are controlled by media. Or do we move toward a world where critical thinking, nuanced understanding, and the ability to solve problems are both recognized and valued? While it’s the role of each instructor to help students learn, it’s the role of our educational system to maintain this high bar expectation of what it means to be mindful human. Quality education is the key to our species being able to survive on this planet sustainably.
Lastly, instructors who maintain the lecture-only format hold the implicit assumption that their students already know how to study effectively—if students can’t “get it” on their own, then it’s their fault because they didn’t try hard enough. This is a poor assumption, even for our upper level students. In so far as today’s students don’t know how to study effectively, how poorly they perform academically is not a fault of their own, but that of the educational system in which they were raised. It is each instructor’s duty to correct the poor study practices of his or her students. The extent to which the lecture-only format prevents the instructor from performing this duty is the extent to which the lecture-only format is complicit in a systematic malpractice of our profession.
It is time for the academic community to roll up its collective sleeves and re-double efforts to do what it does best, which is to help students learn about new ideas, about themselves, and how to work well with others. Delivering the new ideas is the first step. Facilitating the learning of those new ideas by leveraging peer-to-peer interactions is the second step. Both these steps are important. We are overdue, however, for a profound shift toward the arguably more challenging second step, which should be the main focus of the classroom experience. To support us in this important transition we need look no further than the hybrid model. But we might avoid calling it such. That is, we might avoid listing some courses as hybrid, others as online, and still others as traditional. In this modern age where the internet resides at our fingertips, most all courses can be readily adapted to a hybrid model. This level of excellence should be expected of all that we offer to our students.
John Suchocki is an adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, VT, and author of several widely-used science textbooks as well as founder and executive producer of Conceptual Academy, an online resource for science instructors looking to move toward the hybrid model.
(1) Suchocki, J. A. Conceptual Chemistry, 5th ed.; Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2014.
(2) Angelo, T. A.; Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed.; Jossey-Bass, Hoboken, NJ, 1993.
(3) Squire, L. R.; Kandel, E. R. Memory: From Mind to Molecules; Roberts and Company, Greenwood Village, CO, 2009.
(4) Brown, P. C.; Roediger, H. L.; McDaniel, M. A. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning; Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014.
(5) Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). www.Pogil.org
(6) Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) www.cwsei.ubc.ca
Freement, S., et. al. Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, Vol 111, No. 23, pages 8410-8415, June 10, 2014.
Pérez-Peña, R. Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science. The New York Times, December 26, 2014.
Suchocki, J. How to Study Effectively. This essay walks students through the step 1 and step 2 learning strategies described in this chapter.www.conceptualacademy.com/how-to-study
Suchocki, J. Student Centered Learning. This is a listing of the author’s favorite class activities described in detail including activities mentioned in this chapter, such as the minute quiz and the pyramid exam. www.conceptualacademy.com/student-centered-learning