Return to Table of Contents for More Strategies
Of all instructional methods, lecturing is the most common, the easiest, and the least effective. Unless the instructor is a real spellbinder, most students cannot stay focused throughout a lecture: after about 10 minutes their attention begins to drift, first for brief moments and then for longer intervals; they find it increasingly hard to catch up on what they missed while their minds were wandering; and eventually they switch the lecture off altogether like a bad TV show. McKeachie  cites a study indicating that immediately after a lecture, students recalled 70% of the information presented in the first ten minutes and only 20% of that from the last ten minutes.
There are better ways. Actively involving students in learning instead of simply lecturing to them leads to improved attendance, deeper questioning, higher grades, and greater lasting interest in the subject [1,2]. A problem with active instructional methods, however, is that they sound time-consuming. Whenever I describe in workshops and seminars the proven effectiveness of in-class problem-solving, problem-formulation, trouble-shooting or brainstorming exercises, I can always count on someone in the third row asking---usually sincerely, sometimes belligerently---"If I do all that, how am I supposed to get through the syllabus?"
I have a variety of answers I trot out on such occasions, depending on my mood and the tone of my questioner, but they mostly amount to "So what if you don't?" Syllabi are usually made up from the standpoint of "What do I want to cover?" rather than the much more pertinent "What do I want the students to be able to do?"; when the latter approach is adopted, it often turns out that large chunks of the syllabus serve little educational purpose and can be excised with no great loss to anyone. But never mind: let's accept---for the remainder of this column, at least---the principle that it is critically important to get through the syllabus. Can I (asks my friend in the third row) use any of those allegedly powerful teaching techniques and still cover it all?
Yes (I reply), you can. Here are two techniques for doing it.
IN-CLASS GROUP PROBLEM-SOLVING
As you lecture on a body of material or go through a problem solution, instead
of just posing questions to the class as a whole and enduring the subsequent
embarrassing and time-wasting silences, occasionally assign a task and give the
class one or two minutes to work on it in groups of three to five at their
seats. For example:
As you lecture on a body of material or go through a problem solution, instead of just posing questions to the class as a whole and enduring the subsequent embarrassing and time-wasting silences, occasionally assign a task and give the class one or two minutes to work on it in groups of three to five at their seats. For example:
Sketch and label a flow chart
(schematic, force diagram, differential control volume) for this system.
Sketch a plot of what the problem
solution should look like.
Give several reasons why you might need
or want to know the solution.
What's the next step?
What's wrong with what I just wrote?
How could I check this solution?
What question do you have about what we
Suppose I run some measurements in the
laboratory or plant and the results don't agree with the formula I just
derived. Think of as many reasons as you can for the discrepancy.
What variations of this problem might I
put on the next test? (This and the previous one are particularly
You don't have to spend a great deal of time on such exercises; one or two lasting no more than five minutes in a 50-minute session can provide enough stimulation to keep the class with you for the entire period. The syllabus is safe!
Warning, however. The first time you assign group work, the introverts in the class will hang back and try to avoid participating. Don't be surprised or discouraged---it's a natural response. Just get their attention---walk over to them if necessary---and remind them good-naturedly that they're supposed to be working together. When they find out that you can see them  they'll do it, and by the time you've done three or four such exercises most of the class will need no extra prodding. Granted, there may be a few who continue to hold out, but look at it this way: in the usual lecture approach, 5% of the students (if that many) are actively involved and 95% are not. If you can do something that reverses those percentages or comes close to it, you've got a winner.
IN-CLASS REFLECTION AND QUESTION GENERATION
The “one-minute paper” is an in-class assignment in which students nominate the most important and/or the most confusing points in the lecture just concluded [3,4]. Variations of this device can be used to powerful effect. About two minutes from the end of a class, ask the students---working individually or in small groups---to write down and turn in anonymous responses to one or two of the following questions:
*“What are the two most important points
brought out in class today (this week, in the chapter we just finished
covering)?” Examination of the responses will let you know immediately whether
the students are getting the essential points. Also, when the students know
beforehand that this question is coming they will tend to watch for the main
points as the class unfolds, with obvious pedagogical benefits.
*“What were the two muddiest points in
today's class (this week's classes, this section of the course)?” Rank the
responses in order of their frequency of occurrence and in the next class go
over the ones that came up most often. The responses to this question will
surprise you. What you would have guessed to be the most difficult concepts may
not show up on many papers, if they show up at all; what will appear are
concepts you take for granted, which you skimmed over in your lecture but which
are unfamiliar and baffling to the students.
*“What would make this material clearer to
you?” You also never know what you'll get in response to this one---perhaps
requests for worked-out examples of solution procedures or concrete applications
of abstract material, or pleas for you to write more clearly on the board, speak
more slowly, or stop some annoying mannerism that you weren't aware you were
doing. Responses to this question can provide valuable clues about what you
could do to make your teaching more effective.
*“Make up a question about an everyday
phenomenon that could be answered using material presented in class today (this
week)”. (Optional:) “One or two of your questions will show up on the next
I used the last exercise---including the
zinger about the next test---at the end of a course segment on convective heat
transfer and got back a wonderful series of questions about such things as why
you feel much colder in water at 20 degrees Celsius than in air at the same
temperature; why you feel a draft when you stand in front of a closed window on
a cold day; why a fan cools you on a hot day and why a higher fan speed cools
you even more; why a car windshield fogs up during the winter and how a defogger
works; and why you don't get burned when you (a) move your hand right next to
(but not quite touching) a pot of boiling water; (b) touch a very hot object
very quickly; (c) walk across hot coals. I typed up the questions (sneaking a
few additional ones onto the list) and posted them outside my office---and in
the days preceding the test I had a great time watching the students thinking
through all the questions and speculating on which one I would put on the test.
(I used the one about the fan.)
1. McKeachie, W.J., “Teaching Tips,” 8th
Edn. Lexington, MA, D.C. Heath & Co. (1986).
2. Bonwell, C.C., and J.A. Eison, “Active
Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom,” ASHE-ERIC Higher Education
Report No. 1, Washington, DC, George Washington University, 1991.
4. Cross, K.P., and T.A. Angelo,
“Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for Faculty”,
--Richard Felder, Professor Emeritus of
This article originally appeared in “Chemical Engineering Education” under the title “How About a Quick One,” and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
* * * * *
The ON COURSE NEWSLETTER publishes innovative strategies for helping students become active, responsible learners. To subscribe to this bi-weekly (monthly in the summer) e-newsletter, click here and send the resulting e-mail. No need to type anything. Our computer will automatically add your return address to the list of subscribers. You're always in charge of your subscription, with a subscribe/unsubscribe link in every newsletter. Have a best practice to share? Click here and request our publication guidelines.