Professors aim to revamp classroom education

April 13, 2011, 2:03 a.m.

Stanford students tired of the lecture-section-paper-problem set routine now have several options for reprieve, including classes using interactive online lectures, avatars and new approaches to problem-solving. These experiments in instruction come as the University reexamines its approach to undergraduate education.

Computer science professor Daphne Koller’s novel approach involves 75-minute lectures with interactive questions delivered to her students online twice a week, which they view and answer at their own pace.

“In the context of a classroom, people don’t really think about the questions because they’re still busy taking notes, whereas here the video stops until the student acknowledges that a question has been asked,” she said.

“If they don’t know the answer, they can go back and rewind and watch the last segment again,” she added. “That’s very valuable to the students and, in the surveys that we ran, was one of the most popular features.”

Koller also had an optional classroom meeting once a week, where she clarified misunderstandings, held interactive exercises building on the material and implemented case studies that built on lecture material.

“What I think this tries to do is exploit the potential functionality enhancements that this new online medium affords us, while at the same time catering better to the kinds of learning that this new generation of students is more suited for and comfortable with,” she said.

Assistant history professor Edith Sheffer had students in her German history class adopt a virtual avatar and contribute weekly diary entries to a class discussion forum, exploring class topics from the assigned avatar’s point of view.

“It’s difficult in the humanities to demonstrate relevance and applicability,” she said. “One of the broader goals of the project is to teach perspective shifting, which is something students can carry forth in later life, as well as self-directed exploration: not just learning the course material but really desiring to go beyond it.”

She employs the same methods in a new class this quarter, but in accordance with previous requests for more freedom, has allowed students to manufacture their identities from scratch instead of assigning them herself.

Sheffer discussed a physics major who was initially skeptical of the project.

“He compared the project to a problem set in a math or science class where it’s not just enough to listen to the lecture, but you need to apply the learning to specific situations,” she said.

Associate mechanical engineering professor Banny Banerjee, who teaches at Stanford’s Institute of Design, applies multidisciplinary “design thinking” in the material he teaches. He described it as an innovative approach to large problems that employ the “neural nets and parts of our brain and cognitive systems that we all have.”

“What we’ve been doing is looking at large-scale problems and having very problem-centered curricula where you put the challenge in the center, rather than the discipline, and then bring in many different disciplines so they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said.

His students, who come from a wide range of disciplines–among them environmental sciences, business, engineering and design–tackle a variety of issues, from creating loans and savings programs for rural women to helping the Chilean equivalent of Home Depot and becoming more environmentally friendly.

All three professors also believe in the widespread applicability of their approaches.

According to Banerjee, it is the ability of “design thinking” to tackle a range of problems that makes it so popular.

“A lot of our current ways of thinking have been formed within boundary conditions where these weren’t the kinds of challenges they were trying to solve,” he said. “And meanwhile a lot of the large challenges such as the sustainability issue or the global inequity issue and so on are highly integrated problems.

“The scale, the urgency and the critical nature of these problems make it such that we need to come up with extremely creative solutions.”

Koller argued for the cost-effectiveness of her methods, which could be especially practical for financially strained institutions, but may also work well for introductory biology, chemistry and physics at Stanford.

“The reason that it resonates so well is that in those classes students come in with very different backgrounds and levels of ability,” she said. “The nice thing about having a much more flexible framework is that allows you to teach classes in a way that’s not one-size-fits-all.”

Biology professor Susan McConnell, who co-chairs the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), said publicizing the effectiveness of innovative methods is a major goal of the SUES agenda.

“What we are doing is trying to learn about what works and enable the different resources at Stanford and communicate with the faculty so that they can…adopt technologies that are appropriate to their teaching styles,” she said.

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