Lecturing three times a week may not be the best way to teach, math professor Chad Topaz has realized. He is pioneering new methods of teaching in his Applied Calculus and Differential Equations courses.
“Thanks to learning scientists, we now understand that learning isn’t simply a matter of a professor pouring knowledge into students’ heads,” says Topaz. “The traditional model of delivering a lecture is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible.”
Topaz has been exploring innovative pedagogy since reading books such as How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academies Press). “Math has traditionally been very knowledge centered,” says Topaz. “New ideas suggest that successful learning environments also emphasize assessment, the learning community, and individual learners’ needs.”
One of those new teaching ideas centers around how to most effectively use the few hours each week when students and faculty are together in the same room. To that end, Topaz is using something called the “flipped classroom” model. It works like this: Students read the relevant material and listen to Topaz’s pre-recorded lectures before class, which frees up valuable class time to address lingering questions, do small group or computer lab work, or give students individual attention.
It’s more work for the professor—at least for the first year of each course—because Topaz must prepare and record the lectures ahead of time using Livescribe technology. A battery-powered pen records the voice portion of the lecture as Topaz writes the notes, and the electronic lecture can be posted online. The student experience is much like watching the professor write on the white board as he explains concepts.
Topaz estimates that 95 percent of his students like having the lecture delivered this way. “They can pause and re-listen to parts they didn’t understand the first time around,” says Topaz. Students respond to his lectures using Google Moderator, an online forum in which they can pose and answer each other’s questions, or by blogging about the material. To assess comprehension, Topaz sometimes poses questions during class to which students respond via handheld clickers, giving him immediate feedback as to how well they’re grasping a given concept.