I came across an interesting article in The New York Times (January 12, 2009 edition) about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is moving away from traditional large lectures to smaller classes for physics students. Here's the article: At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard. Traditionally, up to 300 1st year students would be packed into a large lecture theatre where students anxiously took notes while the professor covered multiple blackboards with mathematical formulas and explained the principles of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism. Now larger classes have been replaced with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. MIT claims that attendance at class has increased and that the failure rate has dropped by over 50%.
The photo above (linked to from the NYT website) shows Professor Gabriella Sciolla at a class on electricity and magnetism - you can see that extensive use is made of computers, electronic whiteboards, and large displays. Each class is about 80 students sitting around 13 tables - students use clickers to answer Prof Sciolla's questions. The classroom is obviously very high-tech, and the Prof has the benefit of having several teaching assistants in class - clearly this is a very expensive way to teach any subject. However, it is a very modern teaching method to overcome the limitation of the lecture method of teaching that has been in existence for several hundred years. At MIT this is an effort to do a better job of teaching science in response to criticism of the standard lecture.
I sometimes do a small exercise at the very beginning of some modules where I ask students to match the retention rate of learning with different learning and teaching methods. Here is a table of learning methods and their retention rates - but they are mixed up. See if you can match the correct retention rates with the appropriate method of learning. In particular - what is the percentage retention of content for a lecture?
Move your mouse over the image (don't click) to read the correct order.