Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

  • Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education

    Daphne Koller 
    New York Times

    Our education system is in a state of crisis. Among developed countries, the United States is 55th in quality rankings of elementary math and science education, 20th in high school completion rate and 27th in the fraction of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

    As a society, we can and should invest more money in education. But that is only part of the solution. The high costs of high-quality education put it off limits to large parts of the population, both in the United States and abroad, and threaten the school’s place in society as a whole. We need to significantly reduce those costs while at the same time improving quality. If these goals seem contradictory, let’s consider an example from history. In the 19th century, 60 percent of the American work force was in agriculture, and there were frequent food shortages. Today, agriculture accounts for less than 2 percent of the work force, and there are food surpluses. The key to this transition was the use of technology—from crop rotation strategies to GPS-guided farm machinery — which greatly increased productivity. By contrast, our approach to education has remained largely unchanged since the Renaissance: From middle school through college, most teaching is done by an instructor lecturing to a room full of students, only some of them paying attention.

    How can we improve performance in education, while cutting costs at the same time? In 1984, Benjamin Bloom showed that individual tutoring had a huge advantage over standard lecture environments: The average tutored student performed better than 98 percent of the students in the standard class. Until now, it has been hard to see how to make individualized education affordable. But I argue that technology may provide a path to this goal.

    Consider the success of the Khan Academy, which began when Salman Khan tried to teach math remotely to his young cousins. He recorded short videos with explanations and placed them on the Web, augmenting them with automatically graded exercises. This simple approach was so compelling that by now, more than 700 million videos have been watched by millions of viewers. At Stanford, we recently placed three computer science courses online, using a similar format. Remarkably, in the first four weeks, 300,000 students registered for these courses, with millions of video views and hundreds of thousands of submitted assignments.

    What can we learn from these successes? First, we see that video content is engaging to students — many of whom grew up on YouTube — and easy for instructors to produce. Second, presenting content in short, bite-size chunks, rather than monolithic hourlong lectures, is better suited to students’ attention spans, and provides the flexibility to tailor instruction to individual students. Those with less preparation can dwell longer on background material without feeling uncomfortable about how they might be perceived by classmates or the instructor. Conversely, students with an aptitude for the topic can move ahead rapidly, avoiding boredom and disengagement. In short, everyone has access to a personalized experience that resembles individual tutoring.

    Watching passively is not enough. Engagement through exercises and assessments is a critical component of learning. These exercises are designed not just to evaluate the student’s learning, but also, more important, to enhance understanding by prompting recall and placing ideas in context. Moreover, testing allows students to move ahead when they master a concept, rather than when they have spent a stipulated amount of time staring at the teacher who is explaining it. For many types of questions, we now have methods to automatically assess students’ work, allowing them to practice while receiving instant feedback about their performance. With some effort in technology development, our ability to check answers for many types of questions will get closer and closer to that of human graders. Of course, these student-computer interactions can leave many gaps. Students need to be able to ask questions and discuss the material. How do we scale the human interaction to tens of thousands of students?

    Our Stanford courses provide a forum in which students can vote on questions and answers, allowing the most important questions to be answered quickly — often by another student. In the future, we can adapt Web technology to support even more interactive formats, like real-time group discussions, affordably and at large scale. More broadly, the online format gives us the ability to identify what works. Until now, many education studies have been based on populations of a few dozen students. Online technology can capture every click: what students watched more than once, where they paused, what mistakes they made. This mass of data is an invaluable resource for understanding the learning process and figuring out which strategies really serve students best.

    Some argue that online education can’t teach creative problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. But to practice problem-solving, a student must first master certain concepts. By providing a cost-effective solution for this first step, we can focus precious classroom time on more interactive problem-solving activities that achieve deeper understanding — and foster creativity. In this format, which we call the flipped classroom, teachers have time to interact with students, motivate them and challenge them. Though attendance in my Stanford class is optional, it is considerably higher than in many standard lecture-based classes. And after the Los Altos school district in Northern California adopted this blended approach, using the Khan Academy, seventh graders in a remedial math class sharply improved their performance, with 41 percent reaching advanced or proficient levels, up from 23 percent.

    A 2010 analysis from the Department of Education, based on 45 studies, showed that online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning, and that blended learning is considerably more effective than either. Online education, then, can serve two goals. For students lucky enough to have access to great teachers, blended learning can mean even better outcomes at the same or lower cost. And for the millions here and abroad who lack access to good, in-person education, online learning can open doors that would otherwise remain closed. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” By using technology in the service of education, we can change the world in our lifetime.

  • AAC&U's LEAP Toolkit

    The Asaociation of Amerian Colleges & Universities has created a website, the LEAP Toolkit, to help more campuses share and develop resources that enable their students reach LEAP's essential learning outcomes.

    The site is really well designed and full of good material.  And even though it's only been up a few months, it aready contains a lot of good examples and material from campuses all across the country.  Including from yours truly on our residential learning communities, one of the high-impact practices that we're best known for internationally.  Here's the link to what I wrote about us: 

    Let me encourage you, too, to add entries to this site.  We have a lot to be proud of--our HIPs are truly as good or better than anywhere in the nation.

  • Grade Inflation

    Nick Balster sent me this link to an interesting historical article on grade inflation:

    There's a pretty clear trend showing an increase in "A" across all colleges and universities, with an even steeper rise for private colleges and universities.  The study authors speculate about several explanations, with a "consumer approach" to education playing a strong role.

    (For those of you who are data junkies like me, the NYT reporter makes an interpretation error based on the simple shape of the trend lines.  She sees that the trend for "A"s and "C"s are almost mirror images of each other and mistakenly interprets that we have more "A"s is because we have fewer "C"s.  More likely, what was a "C" is now graded "B", and "B"s are bumped up to "A"s:  note how the shape of the "C" and "B" lines follow each other since about the mid 1980's.)

    Our office of Academic Planning & Analysis did a study of grade inflation on our own campus about 10 years ago and found that while there was some upward drifting of grades from 1990-2000 (not as much overall as you might think), the substantial differences were in grade distributions across disciplines, and sometimes between instructors who teach in the same course.

    You know what I believe: that grades should be given based on clear learning outcomes; starting with clear learning objectives are the only way to determine what, and how much, students are learning.

    What do you think?  Have you seen grade inflation here?  Have you contributed to it?  If so, what forces are in play?  More important from my perspective, how carefully have you developed learning objectives for your course and how confident are you that your assignments assess your students' learning?



  • Doonesbury and "Google World" education

    Leave it to Doonesbury to do a better job in eight panels vs. what I've been saying about how higher education needs to change because of the "google world's" information revolution.  Enjoy!



  • Suggestions for Teaching during Extraordinary Times

    Current events in Madison provide students and instructors the chance to participate in once-in-a-lifetime learning about key issues in education and society.  At the same time, many of us may find it difficult to reconcile the desire to support colleagues and students who seek to engage or protest the course of important events, and the desire to honor our responsibility to maintain excellence and continuity of class instruction for our students.  

    UW-Madison will defend at all costs your rights to academic freedom; our commitment to our collective value of sifting and winnowing is at the very core of who we are.  Our responsibilities are to show our students, through our actions as well as our words, that we value civil and open discourse, and that we uphold our educational responsibilities by being transparent in our intentions, expectations, and goals when we use these current events or anything else that we bring into the classroom.

    Here, as a resource, are several suggestions that I've been hearing through discussion with my own colleagues and students over the past several days.  Thanks, especially, to Steve Stern and Greg Downey for their contributions.  Points 1-5 refer to general principles to bear in mind; others refer to concrete measures you can take to enhance instruction in times of great civic debate.

    1. Understand that we are living through historic times.  Whether you're intentional about it or not, the educational experience of many students will likely change as a result of what is happening on campus and downtown, because our students care about society, civic issues, and education.

    2. This engagement with “big questions” and with the world around us is, in fact, part and parcel of what it means to receive a university education.  Our general education foundation of in-depth disciplinary learning intentionally teaches us to integrate scientific methods with rhetorical strategies, the arts with the sciences, and asks us all to step out of parochial perspectives in our engagement with the world around us.

    3. Have direct and genuine conversations with your students and colleagues. Authentic dialogue is at the very heart of learning, no matter what the subject matter, and no matter what the political leanings.

    4. Remember not to make assumptions about how your students (or colleagues) feel about what's going on.  It is best to assume that your class holds a wide range of opinions.  Authentic dialogue starts with honest questions and careful listening.

    5. Remember not to underestimate the intensity of thoughts and feelings generated by current events.  You need not shy away from these thoughts and feelings.  Part of your students' education consists of learning to articulate intense thoughts and feelings in productive ways, and that your classroom can enhance these skills.  Considering the importance of being able to communicate clearly as a foundation to a university education, consult with the Writing Center ( and Digital Media Center ( about constructing assignments that can help students use writing, video, audio and photos to productively chronicle their thoughts and feelings in the context of your course.

    6. If you are making changes to classroom instructional techniques, options, or assignments, students need you to communicate these changes clearly and consistently.  Set up ways to communicate with your students (and TAs, if appropriate)—through Learn@UW or facebook, or even through phone trees.  It is a good idea to poll or consult your students and TAs actively to find out whether your communication strategies are effective.

    7. Explain clearly the learning goals you have for any new or revised activities and assignments.  This is true for all instruction, but will be particularly true during these extraordinary times.  Students remain engaged when they understand how their assignments and activities connect to the learning goals you have for them.

    8. Don’t be afraid to substitute new assignments for future ones if new assignments become more relevant or productive.  Students generally don’t mind if you alter your course as long as they haven’t already put forth work on assignments that are later cancelled.  Again, the Writing Center and the Digital Media Center can help.

    9. Think creatively about the logistics that may allow you both to fulfill instructional responsibilities to students, and to enable students to participate in events on campus and in the community.  Some ideas include alternative locations (including, if appropriate to the course, community and campus hotspots), alternative communications through technology, creative assignment options, and creative class and discussion formats.

    10. Many of your colleagues are experimenting with creative ways to enliven their classes through the current news.  Here's one really nice example of how a large-lecture journalism class on mass media took advantage of current events: See other examples at 

    11. Additionally, ask your students whether, and how, they are talking about current events in other courses. You may find ways to play off of other courses or be inspired to fill holes that aren’t being filled.

    12. Think creatively about other ways you might enhance your students learning through extended reading period or assignments that promote self-reflection.

    13. If a final exam is no longer an option, think ahead to how you can legitimately grade students on work already completed.  Some suggestions can be found at the TLE website: 

    14. If you can't get into MyUW or the online campus directory, will you be able to contact students or access your course materials?  Consider backing up your course materials on your own computer, and asking each student to fill out a note card with an alternate email address and phone number.