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March 22, 2018

Senate Matters

The Challenges and Significance of ‘Teaching Today, for Tomorrow’

The university classroom is traditionally defined by the “sage on the stage” approach, with a professor lecturing to a group of students. In this scenario, the professor and their textbook is viewed as the all-knowing sources of information; they then assume the sole responsibility for distilling that knowledge into a more understandable format for the students. In contrast, the students take a more passive role, where their responsibilities are to retain, repeat and possibly interpret or apply the “right answers” given by the instructor. While the instructors’ main tools have shifted from a blackboard and chalk to PowerPoint slides and a laser pointer — and possibly clickers and other technology — the lecture format has, until recently, mostly remained as the model for classroom education.

Although this traditional model has been firmly established over hundreds of years of higher education, the current paradigm is being challenged by today’s quickly evolving educational environment. Specifically, the professor and their textbook no longer represent the only source of available information. Instead, web-based resources through laptops and smart phones are readily available and far more extensive than classroom materials. Such resources can be a positive or negative characteristic of the classroom, as they may enhance — or distract — students from the educational experience. Students also have many more options for flexible online programs, including less expensive options such as massive open online courses (MOOCs).

In addition to these challenges from increasing technology, research indicates that the traditional lecture format may be significantly less effective than other more active forms of education. For instance, Freeman et al. (PNAS, 2014; 111(23):8410-8415) found that in an analysis of more than 200 studies of undergraduate STEM education, traditional classroom approaches were associated with over 50 percent greater odds of student failure; this result held across most types of courses. Based on these concerns and other considerations, many educational programs (at the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere) have started shifting toward more active learning formats, such as flipped classrooms. The flipped classroom reverses the role of lectures and homework; the ‘lecture’ (e.g., through videos or assigned readings) is assigned for outside the classroom, and the ‘homework’ is done during class (often in small groups). In this way, students are forced to more actively engage in applying problem-solving skills; they also gain from faculty oversight and peer feedback in guiding the process of applying their knowledge.

Despite these motivating factors, moving beyond the traditional classroom remains a formidable challenge for most, if not all, faculty. Teaching duties for many faculty represent effort above and beyond their primary research responsibilities (which, in some departments, need to support 75 percent or more of their funding), not to mention university and professional service and/or clinical duties. Finding sufficient time to revamp a course (which may already be running very successfully) therefore presents a major challenge. Further, student opinions may vary as to their preferred model of education. For many students, the traditional classroom represents a comfortable environment where they can passively absorb information from an expert perspective. Concerns such as “Why should I watch videos or read outside of class when the professor I have is a recognized expert in this field?” are sometimes expressed and seen as motivation for keeping the traditional model of education.

Addressing these challenges to optimally mold the educational experience, and providing the necessary support for faculty and students, has developed as a major focus of the University. “The Plan for Pitt” designates “advancing educational excellence” as the first goal in the 2016-2020 strategic plan. The plan includes specific strategies for (1) enhancing the curriculum, (2) personalizing educational experiences, (3) enriching the student experience and (4) promoting access and affordability. Many aspects of these strategies demand a classroom that reaches beyond the traditional “sage on the stage” method. In particular, the first strategy (of enhancing the classroom) calls for “innovative, discipline-based approaches to teaching and learning and appropriate uses of technology to enrich the on-campus learning environment.” To help accomplish these goals, the University offers funding through mechanisms such as the Innovation and Education Awards and other resources and training through the University Center for Teaching and Learning (as well as numerous other units within different schools and departments).

To help guide the University into this rapidly evolving educational environment, “Teaching Today, for Tomorrow” will be the focus for the 2018 Senate Plenary session on March 27 from noon to 3 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room. The plenary will feature both presentations and breakout sessions to produce more-focused discussion on personalized education, changing models of education and open educational resources. Each of these topics and discussion will identify key action items for the University to achieve its goal of academic excellence in today’s and tomorrow’s classroom.


Douglas Landsittel is a professor of biomedical informatics, biostatistics and clinical and translational science. He is also co-chair of the Senate’s educational policies committee.


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