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By Teaching, We Learn

September 14, 2023
ND Learning

By Jennifer L. Schaefer

“By teaching, we learn” is the English translation of the Latin proverb docendo discimus. The inspiration for this proverb has been attributed to Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 BC – AD 65). But whatever the source, that message carries much truth.

Think back to your own experiences as a student. In times when you explained a concept or method to another student, didn’t it bolster your own understanding and confidence? Fast forward ahead to your most recent new course delivery. Did teaching this new course impact your own view and/or familiarity with the course content? Yet despite these positive impacts of teaching on the learning of the teacher, we often fail to formally incorporate student-led teaching into course design.

I first taught CBE 40425: Energy, Economics, and Environment in Fall 2015 as my very first course taught at ND. Despite the students’ self-proclaimed interest in the course content, and despite my best attempts at varied types of engagement, I found students dozing off during lectures. Yet, students were quite engaged right at the start of class when listening to a peer. I had assigned each student to give one short (< 7 minute) presentation about a topic that was related to the core lecture message but that I wasn’t going to cover myself, and these presentations were the opening to class on many days. Perhaps the time slot after lunch was not to my benefit for students staying awake for more than 7 minutes. Or perhaps listening to a peer was intriguing enough to keep their attention.

After teaching the course in the original format twice, I switched to a revised format that incorporated more student presentations in Spring 2019. My confidence to try this new format was bolstered when I learned that a well-respected senior colleague in my discipline (Emeritus Prof. Joan Brennecke) had success with a similar approach. On many class days in this revised format (e.g. 20 of 41) , student presentations take up the majority of the lecture period. Students present in pairs on specific topics chosen by me for short durations (e.g., 6 minutes per presentation pair with an extra 2 minutes for questions and 5 presentation pairs per 50 minute class period). The class is tasked with asking questions, at minimum two questions per presentation. My own lecture is the introduction to, intermission between, or summary after the student presentations.

The switch to this new format has many benefits. My informal read of the classroom shows that the percentage of time that students are awake and engaged is substantially higher. Moreover, students report that they learned a lot by preparing the presentations. The presentation skills of students are also improved through this experience. Somewhat surprisingly, no student has ever told me that they were afraid of presenting. The fact that the class style is described thoroughly on the first day so students can drop if they would prefer not to participate and the pairing of the students for these presentations are factors that likely contribute to the success of this model. Students in this elective course are junior or senior undergraduates, in my discipline or a closely related discipline and typically with interest in the course theme.

Of course, there are downsides to this course style that must be managed.

  • The level of relevance of the student presentations to the exact information that I wanted conveyed that class period is dependent both upon the quality of my assigned prompt to them as well as their interpretation of that prompt and what information they can readily find. Additionally, students sometimes inaccurately interpret information that they find. In either case, the instructor must be prepared to correct on-the-spot in the classroom. My usual protocol is to let the group finish presenting, let students ask questions, and then I will carefully interject with correction, clarification, or addition of more information. Letting the whole class know up front, and reminding them that they might not interpret everything correctly and that it is okay is key to success.
  • Very rarely do students fail to show up for their presentations, but it can happen. Assignment of presentation dates for the whole course at the beginning of the semester helps to alleviate most conflicts, and allowing students to sign up for class dates when the theme is of the most interest to them is a motivator.
  • It is also true that the total quantity of information delivered during a lecture period with student presentations is on average lower than what I would deliver with continuous lecture. But we must remember that the quantity of information lectured about does not equate to the level of learning.

After six successful offerings of my elective course with this enhanced student participation model, I encourage you to try it too!