At 10 a.m. on a Monday this past spring, Kansas University undergraduates filed into a lecture auditorium in Budig Hall, scattered among the several hundred seats so that nearly none were sitting side-by-side.
Some were slumped over sideways. Some put their feet up on the seat backs in front of them. Some eyes struggled to stay open. But they wouldn’t be able to relax long.
When class began, psychology professor Ruth Ann Atchley took to the lectern. And the first thing she told the students was not what she would be talking about — it was about what they would be doing.
“You’ll actually be helping me to design a new line of research,” Atchley said.
The “lecture” portion of the introductory psychology class that day would consist of a seven-minute TED Talk video, followed by about 10 minutes of talking by Atchley. After that, it was time for the students to lead the way, shifting over into those empty seats to form three-person groups and brainstorm research questions. Atchley and four graduate students paced the stairs of the auditorium, talking to each group about their ideas.
Atchley’s 320-student PSYC 104 class in the spring was a “hybrid” course — the first time she’d tried teaching that way. Hybrid courses — sometimes also called “blended” or “flipped,” though others say those terms have distinctions — shift much of the work done in a traditional lecture online, leaving class time for interactive activities.
Instead of listening to a professor deliver information during one 50-minute lecture after another, students absorb it outside of class time. They spend much less time in a classroom than in a traditional lecture —perhaps only about half as much. But when they come to class, they can’t expect to just lean back and listen.
“It makes them active seekers of the things that we typically or traditionally have just handed to them,” said Dan Bernstein, another KU professor of psychology who also directs KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Bernstein’s center is one of two at KU helping faculty to shift some of their courses from the traditional lecture-and-test model that some have used for years to the hybrid format. Some instructors, such as Atchley, have already tried out hybrid courses. But within a few years, they could be the rule, not the exception, among courses for lower-level students at KU.
A better way to learn
Recent research has shown that while traditional lectures can be a fine teaching tool for upper-level students who already know a bit about the subject, they’re just not effective for freshmen or sophomores just getting an introduction, Bernstein says.
But those introductory classes are the ones most commonly placed in huge lecture halls, with students forced to sit and attempt to take notes. If they miss a word or don’t understand a concept, there’s no pausing or rewinding; the lecture just continues.
“We have, in many ways, our curriculum flipped upside-down,” Bernstein said.
So the aim, KU Provost Jeff Vitter says, is to largely convert those “gateway” classes to the hybrid style.
“It’s a big part of our effort to really enable our students to get off to a strong start at KU,” Vitter said.
The hybrid format eliminates the repetition that often happens in a traditional lecture, Bernstein said, where students — well, some of them — read material before class, then hear the same material from the professor during the lecture.
“We’ve all been students,” Bernstein said. “We know that if you come to class without doing the reading, most of the time, it doesn’t matter, because the professor is going to talk for 45 minutes anyway.”
In the case of Atchley’s class, students used an online tool called an “adaptive tutorial” instead of a textbook. Students read material online, but they also stop frequently to answer questions to make sure they’re understanding the reading. And if many of the students failed to pick up on a certain point, the system would tell Atchley, so she could concentrate on that point during a brief, targeted lecture.
Emily Hohrein, a freshman in Atchley’s class in the spring, said the course was tougher than most she’d taken — more work outside of class, and active attention required in class — but that she could tell she’d learned more.
And with the tutorial program and Atchley keeping watch, she knew right away if she wasn’t catching onto something. In a typical course, she wouldn’t find out about that until her test grade came in.
“She knew right away what we didn’t get,” Hohrein said.
Plus, since students spent less time in class than in a typical lecture, it was much easier for Hohrein to work around her full-time restaurant job.
Making the switch
Bernstein said he hoped for the majority of KU’s introductory courses to make the switch to the hybrid style within about five years.
It may take time for students to get used to it. Atchley said a few students have grumbled about the format. Now they have little choice but to actually read their required materials, and they can’t hide during class.
But they won’t be able to hide after they’ve graduated and gotten a job, either.
“It’s much more in keeping with what you’re expected to do once you get out into the workforce,” Atchley said.
During that class period in April, she challenged students to come up with ways for her to expand her research, which has found that spending time in nature away from electronics can increase creativity. Instead of just feeding them information, she asked them the same question she ponders as a seasoned researcher: What more can we learn?
Bernstein said open-ended questions like these are key: Instead of presenting students with information and leaving them to trust that it matters, force them to learn why it matters.
That makes for a challenge that some faculty might not be used to, he said, though he believes constructing active-learning activities takes less time than crafting 45 hours’ worth of lectures each semester.
Atchley, who is also chairwoman of KU’s psychology department, has bought in: She says all of KU’s introductory psychology courses will soon be taught in a hybrid format.
Much has been made of the Massive Open Online Courses offered by some of the top U.S. universities since 2012, Atchley noted, with some saying they represent the future of higher education. But what if one way for research universities like KU to react to that trend isn’t to copy it, but instead to double down on the things they can do in physical classrooms that can’t be done online?
These active-learning activities, which could also include debates or role-playing exercises, are a perfect example of that, Atchley says.
“I just believe we have to really take advantage of all the strengths that we have,” she said.