Paul L. Caron

Monday, January 19, 2009

Clickers a Hit at MIT as Part of "Technology Enhanced Active Learning" Program

New York Times:  At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard, by Sara Rimer:

The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50%.

M.I.T. is not alone. Other universities are changing their ways, among them Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Harvard. In these institutions, physicists have been pioneering teaching methods drawn from research showing that most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning. ...

The new approach at M.I.T. is known by its acronym, TEAL, for Technology Enhanced Active Learning. A $10 million donation from the late Alex d’Arbeloff, an M.I.T. alumnus, co-founder of the high-tech company Teradyne, and former M.I.T. corporation chairman, made the switch to TEAL possible. The two state-of-the-art TEAL classrooms alone cost $2.5 million, Professor Belcher said. Unlike in the lectures, attendance counts toward the final grade, and attendance is up to about 80%. Classes meet three times a week, for a total of five hours. Homework is due three times a week. ...

Younger professors tend to be more enthusiastic about TEAL than veterans who have been perfecting their lectures for decades. One of the newer professors, Gabriella Sciolla, who arrived in 2003, was teaching a TEAL class on circuits recently. She gauged the level of understanding in the room by throwing out a series of multiple-choice questions. The students “voted” with their wireless “personal response clickers” — the clickers are essential to TEAL — which transmitted the answers to a computer monitored by the professor and her assistants.

“You know where they are,” Professor Sciolla said afterward. She can then adjust, slowing down or engaging students in guided discussions of their answers, as needed. Lecturing in 26-100, she said, she could only look out at the sea of faces and hope the students were getting it. “They might be looking intently at you, understanding everything,” Professor Sciolla said. “Or they might be thinking, ‘What am I going to do when I get out of this bloody class?’

(Hat Tip: Sarah Lawsky.)

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