Active Learning in the Sciences: A Bok Center Faculty Lunch

This is a guest post from Bok Blog contributor Stephen Tardif

Numbers and symbols flow from a pen that skims across a well-lit page. As a smartphone records the transcription, a voice comments on the components and purpose of the emerging equations. After a final word of warning about common problems to watch for when executing such calculations, the filming finishes. Following some quick editing, the video is then uploaded onto a course website, and its enrollees are notified via email. When class convenes later that week, all (or most) of the students will have watched this explanatory tutorial in full and, following a brief review, in-class group work will concretize its underlying concepts. After about 30 minutes of collaborative labor, the instructor will use the remaining time to delve into the nuances of this lesson’s theory and practice. For some, it’s an exciting example of innovative pedagogy; for these students, however, it’s just another day in Environmental Chemistry.

On October 21, faculty from across the sciences gathered at the Bok Center to hear presentations by two accomplished and enthusiastic teachers about active learning strategies such as the one outlined above. Karen McKinney and Kiran Musunuru each use technology to great effect, and the means they employ—cameras, screen-capturing tools, and editing software—are both ubiquitous and easy-to-use; indeed, their techniques could be adapted to almost any classroom setting.

McKinney, the video-producing instructor whose method is described in the opening paragraph, is a lecturer on Environmental Science and Engineering in SEAS, and her presentation at the Bok Center delineated the purpose of—and the requirements for—her short, pre-lecture films. Initially planned as a series of introductory, 5-10 minute vignettes, her videos gradually grew in size and scope: on average, they run about 15 minutes and focus on the central topic in the upcoming lecture. While making no secret of the labor these videos require—especially at first—, McKinney was, nevertheless, eager to advertise the happy results of her investments of time to her colleagues, and to affirm that the curious teacher could implement a similar technique with ease.

To get started, McKinney only needed a small stand for her smartphone; videos like the ones she makes are simply shot at her desk. And, because her camera is aimed at the page, she herself never appears—a fact that might encourage camera-shy and pajama-clad teachers alike. Moreover, using software that is now widely available—and often included by default on most laptops and desktops—, she can easily edit the film when she finishes, smoothing over verbal slips and stumbles after the fact. (A faculty member familiar with the editing process said that when he makes his own videos, he snaps his fingers at each point he wants to edit, as the aural signature of snapping fingers makes locating such moments again almost effortless.)

With low barriers to participation and powerful tools for production, McKinney’s pedagogical practice seems well-suited for teachers who are eager to create time in the classroom for hands-on activities like individual problem solving and group work. Although McKinney did note that the time required to make the first few videos will be quite high, that amount trends downward during the term—and falls precipitously with the advent of the next term. When the new semester begins, an instructor teaching the same course will start her class with an array of polished teaching tools already in hand.  

McKinney’s description of her pre-lecture videos made the perfect compliment to Kiran Musunuru’s subsequent presentation on learning tools and techniques. An award-winning teacher, a ground-breaking researcher, and a practicing doctor at Brigham and Women’s, Musunuru regularly draws on his varied work outside the classroom to enrich the learning experience of his students. For example, Musunuru will engage research-oriented students by asking them to solve the very problems which he himself encountered in his own research, guiding them towards the same thrills of discovery. For pre-med students, on the other hand, he grounds his teaching of biochemistry in the flesh and blood examples of real patient cases.

Like McKinney, Musunuru uses activity-based learning to aid his students inside the classroom, and technology to deliver information to them outside of it. The activities he uses include group work that is incentivized with points and prizes and problem sets delimited by fixed time limits. In each case, competitive, task-oriented modules encourage students to collaborate with their colleagues. The video content that Musunuru develops for his classes has the same high quality as McKinney’s, but instead of priming his student with presentations to be viewed before lecture, he designs his videos to be viewed either after his lectures—or, in some cases, instead of them.

Questions about the relative efficacy of lectures and videos as pedagogical platforms are pervasive at the vanguard of educational research and at the highest echelons of university administration—and the answers offered to these questions are often at considerable variance. A consummate researcher, Musunuru took the opportunity afforded by his teaching to generate some answers of his own. In a course that he taught two years ago, Musunuru developed a series of videos that, instead of clinching his presentation of lecture-material after the fact, were actually intended as substitutes for his lectures. Curious to see how a class fared with video-presentations instead of lectures, but anxious not to deprive his students of their preferred mode of learning, Musunuru encouraged his students to watch online while still delivering lectures to the handful of students who wished to hear him. The results of Musunuru’s experiment were rather surprising: the small cadre of lecture-goers were among the highest achieving students in the class. To correct for the possibility of selection-bias in these initial results, he then supplemented this study with another one in which a class, arbitrarily divided in half, switched between video- and lecture-based learning half-way through the semester. Intriguingly, the preliminary results of this follow-up show that lecture-auditing students did no better or worse than their video-watching peers.

Since neither platform has a monopoly on pedagogical power, debates about the balance between lecture- and video-based teaching will continue. As Rob Lue, the Faculty Director of the Bok Center, observed following his colleagues’ presentations, videos facilitate exact repetition whereas lectures let teachers simplify, elaborate, and rephrase on the fly. Because each format has virtues unavailable in the other, the best instructors exploit the strengths of both. At their visits to the Bok Center, McKinney and Musunuru each offered, to their colleagues, valuable, detailed models of what such mixed forms of pedagogy might look like.