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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Professors must engage students to be effective

What is the true measure of quality for an undergraduate education? High faculty-student ratio, smaller classes or more spots in popular lectures? It seems that all of these characteristics could contribute to a single page called ""quality by numbers."" When evaluations of our education are reduced to a lengthy spreadsheet, a crucial qualitative aspect is neglected: What about teaching methods?

Nice statistics can only improve undergraduate education to a very limited extent. Even if students get into some of the more popular classes, that doesn't ensure the quality of their educational experience. Upon the buzz of the bell, your professor turns off all the lights of the 300-person lecture hall. The moment his slideshow commences, you feel your head begin to nod. Don't get me wrong, Professor X, the lecture is still informative. It's just... uh... not creative enough.

To encourage innovative undergraduate teaching, the Carnegie Foundation started sponsoring the U.S. Professors of the Year awards program in 1982. This year, Tracey McKenzie from Collin College was one of the four national winners. As a sociology professor, she co-taught classes with instructors from other departments such as computer science and statistics. The interdisciplinary exchange highlighted a fundamental ideal of sociology: understanding our society as a whole.

Creative teaching is not just useful for liberal arts schools or community colleges like Collin; big state universities could also implement the same teaching strategy. Brian Coppola from the University of Michigan teaches the demanding subject of organic chemistry. He engages student participation through student-facilitated discussions concerning their topics of research. So, instead of solely receiving digested materials from instructors, students have the opportunity to chew on the information themselves.

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But how about large lectures where swarms of people just come, sit and go? Remember the last time your professor talked about quantum theory in the intro astronomy class? All those text-heavy explanatory slides hardly pique your interest, even though they are educational. So what if one day your instructor comes in and asks students to throw colored Nerf balls at him? That is what professor Alex Filippenko did to show how energy changes happen at the atomic level. By jumping from the floor to desks to make catches, he created a vivid illustration for his 700 University of California-Berkeley students.

At UW-Madison, I was lucky enough to experience a similar interactive education. In professor Tim Allen's ILS 252, pantomiming has become an integral part of the class.

For example, students may already know meiotic crossover is a key to biodiversity. But not a lot of them realize that the trigger is the exchange of DNA segments between homologous chromosomes. To explain the process, Allen asked them to act as chromosomes. When ""meiosis"" happened according to his call, students started moving around, and guys swapped their hats for girls' earrings and scarfs. For the 140 students in that lecture hall, that was something we would never forget.

Creative teaching can be a great experience for both students and instructors. Innovative class time is especially rewarding for freshmen and sophomores, who are still trying to locate their academic interests.

As the lecture-discussion combo has come to dominate higher education, your only feedback consists of exams, papers and an occasional roll of the eyes. In recent years, UW-Madison has dedicated itself to the availability of courses but not toward the quality aspect. While 44 other states honor their ""Professor of the Year,"" Wisconsin still has its arms folded with a ""never-heard-of-it"" attitude. Now it's time for a change. If necessary, Descartes' dictum should take on a new version: ""I do, therefore I am.""

Qi Gu is a junior majoring in journalism. We welcome all feedback. Please send all feedback to 

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