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Lethargy in Large Lecture Halls Essay

Many problems exist within education today, more specifically post secondary education. One of the larger problems in many students’ and professors’ minds is the problem of the environment they are expected to learn/teach in. Different individuals have different styles of learning and the passive environment of the large lecture hall certainly doesn’t cater to all of these. Jeffery DeShell, an assistant professor of creative writing at CU Boulder, expresses in an interview that, though he doesn’t teach in the large lecture setting himself, that he is extremely familiar with the problem that exists within this setting.

He remembers struggling through some of his undergraduate course work specifically because of the anonymity the classroom created between himself and his professors. We see a great focus on amount of material covered, but little attention is paid to the retention of this information. Sleep deprived students enter the classroom and without interaction of some sort, they find themselves dozing, daydreaming and completely losing sight of any information that is covered that day.

Instead of soaking in information in the classroom, students tend to cram and rigorously study to do well on an exam. This method of learning is not only stressful, but extremely ineffective (Hoogendyke). As a result, the hundred level courses that are supposedly producing well rounded individuals out of college are being forgotten and lost many years later. What can be done about this? Well not a lot can be done to completely remedy the problem, but there are many simple solutions that will further education and develop better learning environments for students today.

A complete revamping of the educational system seems impractical, but what about small changes in the large classroom that could turn it into something more like a small classroom? This prevalent problem that plagues Universities of today and has for many years, is not one we are stuck with. It is a problem, that given careful planning and a little practical problem solving, could be lessened and moved towards resolution. Straight out of high school and entering a much larger and less intimate environment such as the lecture hall, college freshmen may find the transition intimidating and hard to handle.

They may find themselves not speaking up in class and unable to bring themselves to healthy interaction. Jeffery DeShell states that in freshmen level classes students seem less willing or more intimidated to become actively involved in discussion. As one in 200 the student is likely to feel little to no relationship with his or her professor and vise versa. To eliminate some of these barriers that can tend to cause a portion of the lecture hall problems, a professor can take a few moments before class to learn his or her students’ names.

This not only establishes a relationship between the student and the professor, but also makes the student more comfortable in the class and more likely to participate in discussion (McGraw 1). Where as the professor has the ability to break down hindering social barriers in his or her classroom, the student is still responsible for his or her education. Any given student has the power to actively learn in this environment, but it takes willpower. A student who is truly devoted to his or her education will take the necessary measures of academic rigor to assure that education.

It is important for students to stay away from friends in the classroom. Near by friends can present temptations towards breezy frivolous goofing around and failure to pay attention. These tendencies obviously harm education. The student should also get to know his or her professors by making use of their office hours. Even if professors make attempts to learn their students’ names, students can always develop deeper relationships with them. These relationships can be beneficial as a professor can be a powerful advocate for students and help them to better grasp material.

Asking questions in class is another way students can further their education, any misunderstanding should be cleared up immediately and in doing so students can become more engaged with subject matter (McGraw 1). Students who develop relationships with their professors’ and are not bashful when it comes to asking questions tend to show a higher level of success than students who don’t (DeShell). However, not every student is motivated enough to take these measure and even they were more barriers with roots in attention span and the traditional lecture format root themselves in the problem.

I sat in the back of the classroom, observing and taking careful notes as usual. The class had started at one o’clock. The student sitting in front of me took copious notes until 1:20. Then he just nodded off. The student sat motionless, with eyes shut for about a minute and a half, pen still poised. Then he awoke, and continued his rapid note-taking as if he hadn’t missed a beat. (Kalish 1) Given this observation we can see that the problem at hand has much to do with students’ attention spans.

These “lapses of attention” are not necessarily rare; in fact they occur often enough for most faculty members of universities to be well aware that there is a problem at hand, but why? As the observation above indicates, along with many other studies on attention span, on average, adult students are able to keep focus in class between 15 and 20 minutes before their fleeting attention completely wanes. In a personal interview, Nicholas Hoogendyke, a pre-med student at Colorado State University, reveals that in his classes where the professor strictly relies upon lecture, he is bored to death and it is all he can do to remain focused.

Studies conducted by A. H. Johnstone and F. Percival almost 30 years ago seemed to point to this rule of 20 minute attention span when concerning adult students. They observed more than 90 lectures delivered by 12 separate professors and saw what pointed them to this conclusion: students trailing off in note taking between 10 and 18 minutes after initially settling down in class. After their first fall in attention, they would briefly regain composure before drifting off again.

As the lecture went on, time between lapses seemed to decrease. By the end of class attention span may have descended to depths of only three to four minutes. Since the time of Johnstone and Percival, other studies on the subject have seemingly established their observations as rule (2). Though these studies do establish good grounds for the problem, they do not explain why students’ attention spans seem so short. The problem can be explained in terms of the current form of teaching that the traditional lecture follows.

This form is known as the “information transfer model” and is based on the train of thought that views the human mind as a “recorder,” so to speak, of information. According to this way of thinking the lecturer lectures and what ever is taken in by the student is recorded into their cognition. This, however; contradicts what scientific research on the subject of the human mind shows. Instead of recording information, the brain breaks things down. The memory splits itself up into categories and any new piece of information is sorted into its appropriate category in the memory (Kalish 1).

Because the lecture environment treats the brain as the former, students are not given the appropriate tools to sort information, and create new categories they need. The mind is much more active than a recorder and for it to assimilate new data it must be taken off of the passive track the traditional lecture puts it on. New ideas need to be practiced. A student should be given the opportunity to discuss, explain, come up with examples and interact with other students when these new concepts come up in class.

This kind of engagement is what is necessary to sort new information into its appropriate categories in the memory (2). Donna Dahlgren, a professor of psychology, and particularly well versed in how the brain stores information in the memory, applied her knowledge by splitting up her classroom into smaller groups and engaging the students in active learning (Englert ? ). When a professor lectures for two hours straight, ideas are not drilled properly into the brain. Thus turning the mind into a passive lump of flesh and perpetuating attention span lapses.

To better engage students and prevent these breaks in attention, one would keep in mind the 20 minute rule while simultaneously stimulating the mind to help categorize new concepts in the mind. When a lecture is laced with different types of activities and breaks in lecture, the professor is more likely to hold the attention of students, report Johnstone and Percival in their studies on attention span in the classroom (3). Lecture style “change-ups” should be used to maintain attention. Working these “change-ups” into the class in 20 minute intervals can keep students attention from waning.

For example, in a 50 minute class, a professor could lecture for 20 minutes and then have a pre-planned activity for students to follow enforcing the new ideas that were introduced in the lecture (4). Donna Dahlgren of IU has discovered that these small group discussions within the large lecture hall actually simulate a small class environment. She keeps the groups and activities under her own strict control while simultaneously allowing interaction (Englert 1). This seems to open students up to asking questions as Dahlgren feels they should be doing, where as without this peer interaction they tend to seem more reserved (2).

The class could be wrapped up with a 10 minute synopsis of how the activity related to the lecture and class discussion and questions. The last 10 minutes or so of “wrap-up” is necessary in giving meaning to the activities. Without it, students may not see the nexus between new concepts and the activities, by closing the discussion and pointing out important points concepts assuredly congeal in students’ memories (Kalish 4). This method of breaking up class time, might prove to be especially effective, because it keeps in mind the workings of the human

mind, while also avoiding the drone of traditional lecture that students tend to fade in an out of. Though these steps do lend headway to the problem, students may find themselves lacking motivation to participate in these activities and discussions may be dominated by a select few students. If students aren’t participating in the planned activities, they are pushed back into passive mode and the activities will not have the effect they were meant to have. Because it seems as if many students’ proclivities are towards passivism, a method of engaging those students must be developed.

Between the years of 1984-1985 IBM developed a new device known now as the “personal response system” in which each student answered professors’ questions via a personal “clicker” unit. Immediately after graphs of student responses were displayed. Where studies by IBM found the same 20 minute attention span of students in the traditional lecture hall as Johnstone and Percival and on a 100 point attention index scored 47. The classrooms with the “personal response system” scored on average an 83 when tested under the same standards.

Where as the original system developed by IBM may have been costly, the price has been reduced exponentially and has become a cost effective solution to the problem (Why Use a 6). Professors who have used the response systems seem to be fond of the systems as using them allows them to track each student’s understanding of the material. The “clickers” have built in ID numbers so the professor can follow the progress of each student throughout the semester. Student’s who have used the system find themselves more actively involved in the lecture hall where without they may have found themselves bored or worn out (Cohen 2).

Professors may also find it useful to use “Blackboard” as another tool in getting students engaged in class. Internet discussions between students via “Blackboard” can be brought up during class and worked in with the discussions in class. Students who have participated in the online discussions are more likely to participate enthusiastically in class as the topic is one they have already given thought and become slightly interested in. These discussions could possibly be worked in with the discussions from the “Personal Response Systems” and enliven activities (McGraw 1).

However, the classroom itself will outlive the advances in technology, so special mind should be paid to this (Kirby 2) Lecture hall classrooms detach students. Stadium seating makes the hall seem less like a classroom and more like a ball park. Will technology solve the problem? I would say partially, but what Charles Kirby says in his article entitled “Making Demands” is that technology is fleeting and the actual structure of the classroom that accommodates this technology is more important to creating an environment geared towards rigorous academia than the technology itself (Kirby 2).

Some colleges are actually breaking up their lecture halls and creating more 30 to 80 person classrooms, which allow for better discussion and don’t demand the technology large lecture halls do to keep students focused (1). It may be true that the structure of a classroom is more important than the technology that goes into it, but even Kirby would agree that this structuring of the classroom requires technological advances. Specific lighting proves to be a large factor in effective classroom structure.

For instance during regular lectures it is important for the hall to remain well lit, but still glare free, so students can see the professor and the professor see the students. The lighting, however; for a video presentation needs to be dim and free of natural light that washes out video projections. For a professor to be able to use multiple lecture types in one sitting it is important he or she has the ability to easily change up the light in the room. Getting lighting just right can potentially overwhelm a professor and if done wrong can hinder students’ learning experience.

This is preventable by equipping classrooms with “programmable touchscreen audiovisual control systems. ” These systems use commands that control “pre-programmed lighting scenarios” for relatively easy change (2). Where as technological advancements obviously further what is to be seen as effective academia, they also tend to distract from it. Wireless internet routers sweeping across many college campuses and as it becomes easier to connect to the internet in the classroom, it also becomes easier to fall into its traps of distraction.

Not only does a laptop that can easily connect via wireless in a classroom make it easier to lose attention, it also makes it easier to feign that attention (Kladko 1). A student browsing websites from behind his screen could easily put on a facade of true note taking, which can’t be monitored by a professor (2). Many professors are disheartened by this push towards a completely wireless campus, because as it is, easy internet access will provide students with the resources needed to more easily jump to participation in class, but at the same time it acts as a “competitor” to professors lectures (1).

As Seddik Meziani, puts it “technology with a safety net” could be useful in eliminating this problem that technology presents. He believes a “bank of screens” that displays each of his students screens and allows him to monitor them all at once would be not only be effective, but is necessary. Without some form of mitigation this advancement, set in place to help students, end up harming them. All in all, technological advancements help the classroom, but since it is obvious that they are not completely infallible and no final solution to the problem, the burden of solution ultimately comes back to professors.

As a professor it is important to be social and enthusiastic towards students. Where as course work may seem boring to students, it is the professor’s job to get them interested in it. It is their job to break down social barriers that prevent classroom discussion. By socializing with students, maintaining eye contact and using strong descriptive language, a professor can move his class towards interest and break down many of the problems that exist in his or her room. Visual aids and again “change-ups” in lecture style can work towards maintaining attention in the lecture hall.

Exciting particular students and encouraging them to become engaged in the subject matter outside of class will bring them into class and make them more willing to participate. In untangling the roots of the remedial lecture hall it has been made clear that its origins can be found mostly in student attention span. To alter the traditional lecture form and turn it into something more interactive and engaging using technological advancements and peer to peer discussion and activities within the classroom could largely dent the problem.

Though the problem exists ultimately within student motivation and dedication to education, furthering of technology and altering of lecture style can boost motivation. It can get students interested in what they learning and motivation can shift from focus on grades to a focus on knowledge and learning. By increasing attention span using new methods of lecture, students may find themselves more attached to what is being taught to them and more willing to participate. Exciting students about knowledge and course material and keeping them attended to it is what the solution to this problem hinges on.

By working in new technology and using studies on attention span to structure lectures, not only will students be more attentive, but also more motivated. Works Cited Cohen, Jodi S. “Personal Response Systems Changing College Classrooms. ” Chicago Tribune 13 July 2005. EBSCOhost. Pueblo Community College, Canon City. 06 Oct. 2005. DeShell, Jeffery. Assistant Professor of English, Colorado University. Personal interview. 16 Sept. 2005. “Engaging a Large Lecture Class. ” The McGraw Center. 06 Oct. 2005 . Englert, Lucianne. “Waking Up the Lecture Hall. ” Research and Creative Activity XXII (1999).

10 Oct. 2005 . Hoogendyke, Nicholas L. Personal interview. 02 Nov. 2005. Kalish, Alan, and Joan Middendorf. “The “Change-Up” in Lectures. ” Indiana University Jan. 1996. 05 Nov. 2005 . Kirby, Charles. “Making Demands. ” School and University 1 Dec. 1999. 06 Oct. 2005 . Kladko, Brian. “College Lecturers Have to Compete With Web Distractions. ” The Record 16 Apr. 2005. EBSCOhost. Pueblo Community College, Canon City. 05 Nov. 2005. Singal, Anik. “Study Skill: Lecture Hall Courses. ” I Am Next. 06 Oct. 2005 . “Why Use a Classroom Response System? ” 05 Nov. 2005 .


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