Boise summit looks to improve college instruction

Sparking student interest in learning

Mathew Ouellett, from Wayne State University, talks about how to engage students in their own learning.
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Mathew Ouellett, from Wayne State University, talks about how to engage students in their own learning.

An adult’s average attention span for listening to something is about 12 minutes.

So why do college professors lecture for nearly an hour in their classes? How much of what they are saying really gets through?

Teaching strategies — such as the all-too-well-known professorial lecture — came under scrutiny Friday at a Boise summit of 23 colleges and universities from across the country looking at ways to improve instruction for would-be teachers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Q: Who attended?

More than 75 people. They came from Auburn University, Michigan State University, University of Maryland, Texas Tech University, Idaho State University, Portland State University, University of Utah, College of Western Idaho, and other schools.

Q: Why a summit on teaching?

College faculty often teach the way they were taught, said Susan Shadle, director for the Center of Teaching and Learning at Boise State University, which hosted the summit. “Most learned by sitting in lectures,” she said.

Changing how instructors present information can have enormous benefits in helping students achieve a deeper understanding and improved retention of material, said Mathew Ouellett, associate provost and director of teaching and learning at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Q: Is it complicated?

No. Both Shadle and Ouellett say simple tactics can bring students to focus more on their learning. One example: a strategy called “Think, Pair, Share.” A couple of times during a lecture, a professor could stop and ask students to reflect on what they have heard, pair up and discuss it with another student, and then share what they learned. “The technique is very, very helpful for sustained learning,” Ouellett said.

Another strategy is polling, in which classes are asked a survey question part of the way through class. “They help students engage the material in a very active way,” Ouellett said. “You have a lot of fun with it. It doesn’t take a lot of time.”

Q: What are the obstacles?

Integrating new teaching techniques, however, isn’t easy in many university structures, Shadle said. Innovative instruction often isn’t rewarded in a culture where dollars-producing research is considered the mark of a good instructor. “You might be doing a great job” as an instructor, but it might not count much in tenure, Ouellett said.