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Michael Davis admits that he was “skeptical.” On the first day of classes this spring, the sophomore from Fayetteville entered an auditorium in Carroll Hall and, along with 299 others, waited for the introductory class, Psychology 101, to begin.
The business administration major was unsure about the course for many reasons, including, in all honesty, how much it would engage his interest. Fifty minutes later, he had a qualified answer: “Quite a bit, I think.”
Davis’ thumbs-up was in tribute to the faculty member who leads the class, Jeannie Loeb, a senior lecturer in UNC’s department of psychology. Davis had anticipated the traditional passive role of students listening to a monologue-style lecture — especially those in high enrollment sections of undergraduate survey courses. Instead, he was drawn in by something new: a high energy combination of note taking, frank discussion, lots of humor and the use of technology. Welcome to the blended classroom, where class time and space are allotted to a blend of teachable moments and exercises, rather than one extended lecture.
“Research has shown that moving from the strict, lecture format to active learning helps with retention of information because this is consistent with the brain’s design. Thinking isn’t a passive activity,” said Loeb.
Elizabeth Jordan concurs. An Abbey Fellow as well as a senior lecturer in the psychology department, Jordan also teaches psychology 101 as a blended classroom.
“Students can learn a great deal from listening but they also need to engage,” she said. “Our knowledge about how to get students to that place has evolved. Among other things, engaging means talking to others and answering tough questions.”
Both Jordan and Loeb have received campus teaching awards for their accomplishments in the classroom; both worked with UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence to pilot and evaluate a blended section of Psychology 101. Both now teach Psychology 101 courses on Mondays and Wednesdays with Fridays left open for students to spend time online with homework, class reviews and quizzes. Jordan said data indicate that compared to traditional lecture sections, students participating in blended sections spend three to four more hours a week on task — that is: reading, studying, reviewing.
Certainly, for a tech-savvy generation of students, the opportunities to use the power and flexibility of digital technology in their own ways and at their own pace has enormous appeal. Their instructors, however, point out that technology is but one part of the hybrid, a means to an end, and will never replace the human element in producing better learning outcomes.
For example, Jordan’s 400-seat classroom is divided into zones: laptop computers allowed and laptop free. It’s not unusual, though, for those who opt to take notes with pen and paper to have downloaded her current PowerPoint presentation. The printout is then used in their note-taking, serving as a reinforcement for what’s being said at the front of the room. To encourage class participation, Loeb uses interactive games involving dozens of students physically moving from their seats, talking to each other and responding to questions about the subject du jour.
Online polling, where students with smart phones or laptops text responses to a short series of questions, is employed in both sections. The numbers of correct and incorrect responses, which appear on video screens in the lecture halls in real time, are then used to gauge how many people understand the day’s subject and what needs further clarification.
Incorporated into the blending is the idea that the classroom can be anywhere if the necessary elements are in place. Two of those elements are Sakai, an online course management system offering forums, class calendars and meeting sign-ups, and VoiceThread, a web-based application that allows for the uploading, sharing and discussing of documents, presentations, images, audio files and videos. Jordan and Loeb stress it’s not about technology for technology’s sake —but leveraging technology to make the best use of limited face-to-face time.
A month into Psychology 101, Davis had dropped any qualifiers from his opinion about the blended learning environment.
“It’s Dr. Loeb’s personality and passion for teaching that make her effective. But the use of things such as VoiceThread and games during the class have helped make the information ‘stick’ as opposed to being hardcore-lectured for 50 consecutive minutes.”
Abbey Fellows serve as leaders, mentors and advocates to link academic advising to the overall teaching and learning experience. The program was made possible by a gift from Nancy ’74 and Douglas Abbey of San Francisco.
[Story by Lisa H. Towle]
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