Stuck in Transmission: Time to Change Gears

Dr. Richard Cohen (biography and disclosures)

What I did before:

In the past I followed a tried and tested format for classroom lecturing ‘Tell them what you are going to tell them’ (a set of well-written educational objectives), ‘tell them what you want to tell them’ (no shortage of instructional papers on how to develop a good PowerPoint presentation) and finally ‘tell them what you have told them’ (a concise summary). (DeWinstanley & Bjork, 2002) This approach to teaching has survived for many years— so why would there be any need to change?

What changed my teaching practice:

Two things changed my teaching practice. Firstly, I became aware of my own perspectives on teaching (Pratt, Arseneau, & Collins, 2001; Pratt, 1998). The teaching perspective that I best identified with was that of transmission, probably because that was the way I was taught in my foundational years at medical school. Lectures in particular were used primarily to transmit large amounts of factual information and there was no interaction with students during lectures. Secondly, there is significant evidence in the educational psychology literature suggesting that passive transmission of facts, and then requiring their subsequent recall as part of the assessment process, does not foster deeper learning and understanding. The conventional ‘transmission’ mode of lecturing and teaching is not conducive to active processing of information, particularly in large lecture hall settings. Conversely, there is evidence that teaching methods that stimulate active processing of information are much more effective at facilitating deeper comprehension (Michael, 2006).

Is it possible to facilitate active learning in large groups? Support for this comes from a recently published controlled study that investigated the effectiveness and efficacy of active learning techniques in an undergraduate physics course at UBC (Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011). The control and experimental groups each comprised approximately 270 students. The control group received conventional lectures (“transmission mode”) whereas the experimental group had time to discuss concepts and raise questions within the lecture period, and each group was then formatively tested at the end of the lecture with an audience response system. The findings produced two important conclusions: first, that it is possible to teach using active learning methods in a large class setting, and second, that active learning is associated with improved educational outcomes (Premkumar & Coupal, 2008).

What I do now:

I agree that it is not primarily my academic responsibility to transmit large amounts of factual information, particularly when much of this is readily available electronically. Rather, I believe that it may be more appropriate to develop learners’ critical thinking and clinical problem-solving skills, and to help them identify gaps in their knowledge which can then be filled independently. Now when lecturing, I intermittently pose clinical problems for the students to solve, encourage them to work in small groups while doing so, and utilize an audience response system to assess their progress (Premkumar & Coupal, 2008).

Whilst the students appear to appreciate this approach, I have come to expect a period of adjustment from them with regard to the adoption of active learning techniques (Welsh, 2012). There are data showing an initial decline in student interest when adapting to novel teaching formats, because many students do not immediately appreciate the benefits of active learning and prefer the standard ‘transmission’ method of teaching (Allen, Wedman, & Folk, 2001). It is often only after a period of adjustment that learners embrace these newer methods more fully. I also appreciate that, just as it is imperative for us to inform our patients about their medical treatments, so is it as vital for us to inform our learners of the educational methods we as teachers intend to employ, particularly when these differ from what they have been accustomed to. I find that by spending a few minutes with students telling them not only what I will be teaching, but also the rationale behind the teaching methods I will be using, helps to save a lot of student frustration, and helps the learners to more readily adapt to and accept more effective ways of teaching. But most importantly from a faculty development angle I encourage teachers to constantly re-examine their perspectives on teaching.

References and Additional reading:

Allen, G. K., Wedman, J. F., & Folk, L. C. (2001). Looking Beyond the Valley: A Five-Year Case Study of Course Innovation. Innovative Higher Education, 26(2), 103–119.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332, 862–864.

DeWinstanley, P. A., & Bjork, R. A. (2002). Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways That Engage Effective Processing. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 89, 19–31.

Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in physiology education, 30(4), 159–67.

Pratt, D. D. (1998). Five Perspectived On Teaching In Adult And Higher Education. Malabar: Krieger Publishing Company.

Pratt, D. D., Arseneau, R., & Collins, J. B. (2001). Reconsidering “Good Teaching” Across the Continuum of Medical Education. The Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 21, 70–81.

Premkumar, K., & Coupal, C. (2008). Rules of engagement – 12 tips for successful use of “‘clickers’” in the classroom. Medical Teacher, 30, 146–149.

Welsh, A. J. (2012). Exploring Undergraduates’ Perceptions of the Use of Active Learning Techniques in Science Lectures. Journal of College Science Teaching, 42(2), 80–87.

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One response to “Stuck in Transmission: Time to Change Gears”

  1. As a new teacher brought up in old school ways, it is easier to resort to that system of teaching. What I need to be able to do quickly is to have key questions and strategies that I can use to promote critical thinking by the learner. Any suggestions

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