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Seen & Heard

Lecture Blues

Got the blues about freshman lecture fall-off? Take a tip from MIT, and think TEAL.

Katherine Grayson

In mid January, The New York Times outed MIT's TEAL initiative, and large lectures (for freshmen, at least) took a hit they may not recover from. Thank God.

It seems that MIT educators and administrators took a long, hard look at the introductory physics classes (up to 300 bleary-eyed freshmen held captive in the huge, windowless amphitheater for 50-minute Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism lectures), and they didn't like what they saw. Even for the most mesmerizing lecturers, the student failure rate typically was 10 to 12 percent, and like large freshman lecture classes at most schools, attendance could slide to 50 percent by the second semester of the course.

Not anymore. At MIT, the move to Technology-Enabled Active Learning, or TEAL, has slashed failure rates to 4 percent, and physics students, now required to attend small, interactive group-learning-based classes instead, are actually learning--and liking it.

These days, about 80 students meet in each of two specially equipped "smart" classrooms, and are divided among 13 tables of networked computers. Electronic whiteboards, huge display screens, and personal response "clickers" aid the continual interaction of students with roving TAs, the instructor, and groupmates. According to Sara Rimer writing in the Times, "Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions, and jumping up to write formulas on the whiteboards are all encouraged".

Why the remarkable transformation in learning? No doubt the $2.5M spent on jazzy tech classrooms makes it more fun to learn. But don't whine that you can't find funding for hot technology; there's more to it than that, according to Eric Mazur, a Harvard (MA) physicist and pioneer of the new teaching approach, and Carl Wieman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist at The University of British Columbia. Evidently, freshmen simply can't retain more than a fraction of the deluge of information thrown at them during large, non-interactive lectures. In fact, without active involvement, no one can. Mazur claims it's like trying to become a marathon runner by passively watching marathons on TV. And in an article published in 2007 in the magazine Change, Wieman revealed that the lengthy lectures are counterproductive, for the human brain "can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once."

Personally, I couldn't be more relieved. I routinely head to the supermarket with shopping lists in my head I can't manage to retain. Even my little acronym games (EFFACE for eggs, fruit, fish, apples, cheese, and eggplant) don't help; such acronyms only work when you can actually remember two different "E" foods, and who ever remembers eggplant?

Now I no longer have to flog myself for my lousy memory. This week, the only acronym I have to call up is TEAL, and all I have to remember is: It works.

--Katherine Grayson, Editor-In-Chief
What have you seen and heard? Send to: [email protected].

About the Author

Katherine Grayson is is a Los Angeles based freelance writer covering technology, education, and business issues.

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