A US scientist visited Imperial to speak about innovative new teaching methods put into practice at Cornell University.
Professor Peter Lepage, Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics at Cornell in the USA, gave a lecture about the potential of active learning – a teaching method where a class is made up of a series of interactive exercises, with less time dedicated to traditional lecturing. This way of teaching is already being put into action at Imperial, in line with the College’s new Learning and Teaching Strategy.
There is enormous enthusiasm within the College to implement evidence-based and innovative ways of teaching and learning.
– Professor Simone Buitendjik
One way to use this technique is to display a problem on the screen, giving the class time to discuss the problem in groups and ‘vote’ or choose the correct answer from a list of answers provided. Under guidance from the lecturer, the whole class then look at and discuss the voting results. If the students disagree about the answers, the lecturer encourages them to talk about this and vote again before he or she comments on the students’ responses and gives the correct answer. This method of teaching is currently being used at Imperial on the new BSc Medical Biosciences course.
Professor Simone Buitendjik, Vice-Provost (Education), said: “There is enormous enthusiasm within the College to implement evidence-based and innovative ways of teaching and learning. It is important to draw on relevant experiences at other top universities, especially with the large-scale change that we are aiming for.
“We are in the early stages of this journey of implementing our new Learning and Teaching Strategy, and we are very lucky that esteemed colleagues such as Professor Lepage are so supportive and so generous with sharing their success stories as well as their lessons learned.”
The programme at Cornell University was launched five years ago by its College of Arts and Sciences, to address the growing body of evidence that traditional lectures are not the most effective method of teaching university students.
The programme initially focused on STEM subjects but has since extended to other subjects at the University including arts and humanities. Around 70 staff in nine departments are now involved in the programme.
Professor Lepage said: “I’m trying very hard to embed people undertaking educational research in departments.
“For me a very surprising result of the programme was that the Physics department ended up adding education research to its remit. It’s rather unusual in a top ten physics departments for this to happen.”
We’re having a very significant impact on students’ prospects.
– Professor Peter Lepage
Professor Lepage spoke about the research in the higher education sector that led to this programme, giving examples of similar successful programmes at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado.
The results of the programme at Cornell were encouraging, especially for under-represented groups of students: “Increasing their self-confidence appears to be the most important thing we did on this course, and active learning seems to do this,” Professor Lepage said.
“We’re having a very significant impact on students’ prospects.”
The programme also had a positive effect on the teaching staff involved: “The thing that is most compelling to us is just how enthusiastic our colleagues were about it. They were pleased that they had a measurable impact on the student learning.
“This is a way to continually work on their teaching and it’s starting to shape their teaching careers.”
Professor Lepage compared the programme at Cornell to the changes in teaching methodology currently taking place at Imperial.
He said: “You have a huge opportunity here, almost unique. There are very few institutions that are contemplating something as big as what you’re thinking about.
“One of the reasons you’re superior in this area is you have very deep resources for training people, such as the Master’s in Education. I wish I had a system as well-developed as what you have here.”
Professor Lepage visited various departments at the College over several days, speaking with members of academic and support staff about the new strategy and the programme to implement its four pillars. The College recently announced a call for Pedagogy Transformation proposals arising from departmental curriculum review activities, which closed this month, and will be announcing the next call for proposals in the New Year.
He said: “I think it’s going to be an excellent programme, one of the best in the world.”
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