We see professors following a wide variety of teaching practices across the institute, with most of them willing to try out innovative new methods if they believe it would help their students. An influx of enthusiastic young professors has helped to accelerate this process. Here, we look at some of the most innovative and effective teaching methods employed across campus, and analyse each for its potential pros and cons.
The classroom is typically envisioned as a place with a blackboard and chalks which the teacher uses to teach. However, there are teaching models which do not conform to this idea. One such model is the flipped classroom. The Flipped Classroom is a recently developed pedagogical model that completely redefines the concept of the traditional classroom. In this model, students are required to watch video lectures uploaded by the instructor before attending classes. The teacher has the discretion to employ various learning strategies in class such as tutorials where problems can be solved and concepts can be discussed. By employing such a method, students learn outside the class at their own pace and utilize the class timings to strengthen concepts. In IIT-B, a few professors have begun testing new waters by ‘flipping’ or ‘partially flipping’ their classrooms.
It was first attempted by Professor Kannan of the Chemical Department, and is currently being implemented by Professors Kameswari and Bhaskaran Raman of the CSE Department, among others. They observed that the flipped classroom method provided students an opportunity to learn at their own pace, thereby benefiting all categories of students. Professors also felt that the flipped classroom attempts to set all students on an equal footing. In a regular classroom setting, most professors are of the opinion that they ought to teach to the average student in class. They find it difficult to teach for 60 to 90 minutes and keep the whole class intellectually stimulated throughout. This often leaves the smart ones bored and the ones below average frustrated.
Flipped classrooms are remarkable in their ability to cater to the whole class. Video lectures may be paused or re-watched at one’s convenience. If there is something that the student does not understand, they can instantly summon the entirety of the internet to their aid. It also promotes peer-to-peer discussion among hostelmates. It is a big bonus in large classrooms with an audience of 150+ students, wherein one-on-one interaction is nearly impossible. The flipped classroom technique is especially beneficial for students weak in English, who may take time to grasp concepts in class. Using video lectures, they may ask their friends to explain the videos or decelerate and replay videos for better understanding. In class, students are more inquisitive and enthused to discuss and clarify doubts and solve problems. Much of the valuable class time is now used to deepen their understanding of concepts. The introduction of this model saw an increase in student-teacher interaction in class, with the students being active participants.
However, being an avant-garde model, most professors are skeptical of its success and prefer to stick to the conventional teaching practices. This method relies heavily on the cooperation of the students to watch video lectures prior to class, failing which it becomes completely ineffective. Some professors believe that to counteract this, students can be motivated to watch video lectures and put in efforts by conducting weekly quizzes.
The Flipped Classroom is a recently developed pedagogical model that completely redefines the concept of the traditional classroom. In this model, students are required to watch video lectures uploaded by the instructor before attending classes.
Also, the luxury of being able to access the lecture whenever one wants, undoubtedly makes some students take things easy. Most professors consider decreased facetime with the class a major downside. Arguably, the flipped classroom lacks the simplicity of the classic old-school classroom!
Some professors, instead of adopting radical new teaching methods, simply choose to augment the existing orthodox method with some interesting ideas for assignments and exams.
For instance, dividing the class in random groups of 2 in the tutorials, where you pair up with a different classmate each week, as is done by Professor Ballal. The benefit of such discussions is that you get to learn different approaches and perspectives to a problem with which you might arrive at a solution. This teamwork is required in any field. It also promotes interpersonal skills, as you will have to work with a person you may or may not get along with at your workplace in the future. In addition to this, it ensures participation of the whole class.
Now this may sound too cool to be true, but Prof. U.K. Anandavardhanan sometimes releases the entire question paper on Moodle prior to the exam, with some portions blanked out. Thus, barring the actual problems, students know exactly which type of questions to prepare for, which builds their confidence and challenges them to prepare for tougher problems at the same time.
Another method involved students making group presentations which then decide their grades. Some professors, liked Professor Kashyap, expected students to make their own presentations instead of uploading the class slides, while some assigned diverse topics for the presentation. Thus, the students are compelled to read up research papers, science journals or theses for their presentations. Additionally, Professor Kashyap expects each student to submit a certain number of questions before each exam. He then prepares some portion of the question paper from this pool of questions. He believes this ensures that students cooperate and learn from each other.
Many professors also believe in creating assignments and exam problems based on real life applications. The student ends up solving a problem which he/she may have actually experienced, thus adding a practicality to their learning process. Professor Kedare of the Civil Department had an exam paper which had a specific theme; railways. So all the questions were modelled around various mechanisms and processes involved in it.
Seeing how social networking is a major part of students’ lives nowadays, professors such as Ganesh Ramakrishnan, R.B. Sunoj and AbhijeetMajumdar now use online forums like Piazza and Facebook to interact with their class. Many professors now maintain Facebook pages of their course, where general discussion and doubt-solving takes place.
Think, Pair, Share
Think, Pair, Share is a teaching method wherein a problem is first presented to students in class, after which they are given some time to think about possible solutions. They then discuss their solution with their neighbours, and finally present an answer to the whole class. On campus, this technique was pioneered by Prof. Sridhar Iyer from the CSE department.
Prof. Iyer, winner of the “Excellence in Teaching award” in 2013, believes in TPS as a teaching method because it aligns with his philosophy that the emphasis of a teacher should be on student learning, rather than on how much of the topic is covered. He believes that TPS improves his students’ learning and in order to confirm his intuition, he partnered with research scholars and professors in the Educational Technology Department in the Spring of 2013, to measure students’ learning and class participation. The sample on which the study was done was the freshmen batch of CS 101 during Spring 2013. What they found was that, contrary to the belief that undergraduates don’t participate in class, on average 83% of the class was found to be doing the activities presented by Prof. Iyer, a number confirmed by students’ own reporting in a survey.
Further, students’ learning via TPS was found to be more than double of what it was without TPS. There are various benefits to this model. The students are continuously engaged in class which of course prevents them from falling asleep! Further, students learn from each other and get into the habit of discussing problems with their friends, simultaneously obtaining multiple solutions to the same problem.
A professor needs to practice it consistently to get students to believe in the method. They may feel that not much is happening in class as the lectures are fairly atypical. In the past, instructors too have felt that that too much time is spent on one activity, and that the net content covered in the class is insufficient. But according to Prof Iyer, these are only perceived cons as both issues can be taken care of with sufficient planning. So he recommends that instructors use TPS to explain a concept every alternate class, rather than relegating it to special occasions or tutorials. He also recommends TPS for the in-class component of flipped classroom to guide classroom discussion.
Seeing how social networking is a major part of students’ lives nowadays, professors such as Ganesh Ramakrishnan, R.B. Sunoj and Abhijeet Majumdar now use online forums like Piazza and Facebook to interact with their class.
One of the professors who has started using TPS after Prof. Iyer is Prof. Ganesh Ramakrishnan, also from the CSE department. According to him, the professor should not be biased by a small fraction of the class that is tuned in, since a large part of the class often remains left out. With TPS, he gets a chance to involve all the students and meet the needs of as many people as possible. He believes that students who go really fast may be a bit complacent about what they’re learning; they may think that they fully understand the subject matter even when they don’t. So, he likes to give students time to think on their own just to be sure that they’ve mastered what they’re learning.
Prof. Ramakrishnan also partnered with the ET IDP (Educaton Technology Interdisciplinary Program) to perform formal studies in his classroom and their results were consistent with what was found in Prof. Iyer’s class – that student engagement and learning increased significantly by implementing TPS. However, some students reported that the class was too slow. So there is a lesson to be learned regarding how long these activities should be planned for. Also, Professor Ganesh believes that it is important to explicitly mention the usage of the TPS technique in class for it to be more effective.
In conclusion it appears that TPS, when used in moderation, is great for involving students and improving their learning of subject matter.
Theatrics and Enthusiasm
The professor is an instrumental factor in the learning process of a student. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm and it has generally been observed that students like professors who are active in the class themselves. Now you may say that there may not be a correlation between “liking a professor” and “extracting knowledge from him/her”, but such professors definitely pique the curiosity of the student through deeply engaging lectures, short videos or challenging questions to ponder over at home. Intent on the part of the professor rubs positively on the students as well. The proof of this lies in the popularity and effectiveness of professors like R.B. Sunoj and Punit Parmananda.
Every class must be inclusive. The grasping ability of students varies widely within a class and it is important that the professor is able to let every student take something away from the course. A bright student may find going over the same topics again boring, so the professor must constantly fuel his interest by giving him/her challenging questions and concepts to think over. On the other hand, the professor must also cater to the needs of the student who is finding it difficult to cope up with the material. Striking this balance can be a lot more difficult than it sounds and the success of a professor in keeping the entire class engaged depends on it.
To quote Prof. R.B. Sunoj, teaching in a large class is like performing. If you don’t perform well, you won’t attract a crowd. To keep a class of 100 or more engaged; theatrics become a must. This may involve waking up sleeping students and inviting them to sit on the first bench (and occasionally by threats of eliciting dance performances from them) or connecting course concepts to relatable stories and memorable jokes.
This year we saw a tutorial for the Quantum Physics freshman course being conducted in Hindi, to facilitate the learning of students who are not very comfortable with English. This shows that the enthusiasm of TAs can also be a valuable contributor to students’ learning.
Many professors believe that teaching is an art-form. Novel teaching methods are aids which help students think and learn differently. There is, however, no single teaching method which works well for all courses, professors and students. It is, thus, up to the professor to choose the method which their students benefit most from. This is also indicated by the fact that Professor Iyer (pioneer of TPS), Professor Sunoj (proponent of more orthodox teaching methods) and Professor Ballal (who encourages his students to solve practical problems) have all won Excellence in teaching awards.
In the words of Professor Ganesh Ramakrishnan, the aim of experimenting with different teaching methods is not to find the single “best” method. At the end of the day, it is the pursuit of knowledge that is most important. As for the effectiveness of different teaching methods – to each, their own.
This article was first published in Insight’s September issue. It is the joint team work of Aditi Kothiyal, Bhavesh Singh, Deepak, Dilipkumar, Kshitij, Jaya Krishnan, Mukul Jangid, Neha Innanje, Niranjan Thakur Desai, Pranjali Gupta, Ramya Polineni, Rucha Walawalkar,Shreya Sridhar, Vishvesh Koranne.