Student engagement in class is key

Students often spend their first two years at UW Oshkosh completing general education requirements that, according to the University’s website, will “prepare them for the challenges of work, for engaged citizenship and for a meaningful and satisfying life.” In far too many of those classes, students absorb information simply to regurgitate and forget it. Traditional lectures, where the instructor stands at the front of the room talking while students work fervently to take notes based on an outline that was either provided to them or they’ve created during their reading, are the primary way classes are taught. According to many educational researchers, these one-sided lecture-based classes are largely ineffective and, in most cases, they fail to inspire any critical thought. A study conducted by Arizona State University physicist David Hestenes found that very few of his students were able to demonstrate a conceptual understanding of basic physics after his introductory course. “The classes only seemed to be really working for about 10 percent of the students,” Hestenes said. “And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own.” The results prompted Harvard professor Eric Mazur to completely restructure his classes. Instead of lecturing, he lets students spend class time discussing the assigned readings in small groups. According to the Washington Post, Mazur’s changes are actually part of a much larger effort to improve the way large classes are taught by making them more interactive. He said this method forced his students to be active in developing their knowledge. “In class, we work on trying to make sense of the information,” Mazur said. “Because if you stop to think about it, that second part is actually the hardest part. And the information transfer, especially now that we live in an information age, is the easiest part.” Senior English major Haley Rohe said she actually prefers project-based classes because they help students manage their time better. “Instead of cramming the night before an exam worth 25 percent of a student’s grade, project-based classes let students learn to manage their time and work on projects over a longer period of time, which in my opinion results in higher grades,” Rohe said. Rohe said standard lectures fail to equip students with the transferable skills, like communication, organization, leadership and teamwork, they will need when they graduate. Even though students sometimes prefer those classes because there’s less work, it actually does nothing for them in the long run. “Projects in class, whether that means essays, presentations, speeches, student-led discussions or group projects, let students learn skills that can be used in their career,” Rohe said. “Classes structured around only four exams with no other opportunities to show a student’s progress or what they learned during that class are really not helpful during a student’s college career.” Educational researcher Brian Lukoff said this move away from traditional lecture is the first step in educating students to compete in the global marketplace. “We can’t do that by just sort of picking out 10 percent and saying, ‘Oh you guys are going to be the successful ones,’” Lukoff said. “We need a much larger swath of that population to be able to think critically and problem solve.” The idea of using interactive-engagement methods in college classes isn’t new and it’s possible some UW Oshkosh professors have already incorporated similar ideas into their classes. The problem is, a lot of the time students have to wait until they’re enrolled in smaller, major-specific classes to be exposed to those. If the University wants to “provide students with an assessable, common intellectual experience that also embraces the traditional breadth of a liberal arts education to prepare them for the challenges of work, for engaged citizenship and for a meaningful and satisfying life” it needs to assess the way classes are structured and taught. Striking the perfect balance between instructor involvement and student engagement in the classroom is possible, and that’s what UWO students deserve.