Is Leiden University, an institute with the reputation to value tradition, keeping pace with other higher education institutes in terms of innovative lecturing? I asked myself this question when talking with Technical University teachers at a study success seminar in Delft, early May 2014. Before going into details however, a brief motivation seems in place regarding the context in which this question arose; who is asking, and why?
Over the last couple of years, Dutch universities have taken specific measures to improve educational quality and study success (VSNU, 2012, 2013). Despite these efforts, however, national drop-out rates and study switching in the bachelor remain undesirably high, and average efficiency in terms of timely graduation remains too low (Ministry of Education & VSNU, 2011). According to the Taskforce study success (2009), one way to increase these efficiency issues is to invest more in teaching, guidance and supervision. This advice has led Leiden University to initiate the research project Increasing study success, with a focus on three components of its teaching; the research-teaching nexus, intermediate assessment, and formative feedback. The latter topic, formative feedback in (larger) lectures, is one of the foci in my research. More specifically, my focus is on improving engagement and performance by using so-called audience response systems (ARSs). Within this context, I would like to share my thoughts and observations. Looking forward to reading those of engaged readers such as yourself.
Introducing the research on interactive lectures at Leiden University
With about two-thirds on the way in the first year of my PhD, the exploratory phase is gradually changing to a phase of testing instruments and analyzing first trials. A comprehensive research plan has been written, and in the meantime we spoke with quite a few teachers and course coordinators about our research plans. An important goal of my PhD project is to deliver hands on, evidence-based advice which the University’s (and other higher education) teaching staff can use to improve its teaching practice. Therefore, I strive to take into account the lecturers’ issues and ideas as much as possible. After all, they are the ones that should be willing to participate in, and benefit from this research.
Talking and discussing we did. On seminars, meetings, and workshops, both as a presenter as in the role of discussant, I spoke with lecturers from a variety of domains and institutes. I explained the theoretical background of interaction and engagement in larger lectures using students’ smartphones as ‘clickers’, and the potential benefits on performance (among others). In general, I received positive reactions from Leiden University lecturers, although they tended to remain somewhat aloof. The idea of seemed interesting enough alright, and some lecturers were (to a certain extent) familiar with ARSs. However, only a small proportion appeared willing to try such an approach by participating in the research project, even if that included receiving support and guidance with implementation. In sum, Leiden University lectures appear to be moderately familiar with such methods and techniques for larger lectures, and are somewhat reserved regarding trying such instructional methods. Given that Eric Mazur, the relatively well-known pioneer of the use of ARSs in lectures, received his PhD at Leiden University, I think this is somewhat surprising.
How different that was when a colleague and I spoke on a seminar on study success at the Technical University of Delft last week. When asked for their familiarity with ARSs, 83% of the voting teachers indicated to have used such methods at least once, half of whom indicating that they have used such methods for years. Now, I am not claiming that both impressions are based on a representative sample. Nor am I saying that lecturers at Leiden University are, generally speaking, conservative in their teaching methods. I have spoken to enough open-minded, resourceful, innovative lecturers to know that they are here in Leiden, across domains and institutes. But the difference in the use of interactive methods such as ARSs in lectures does seem rather large, even when taking into account the possible bias in responders at the TU Delft seminar.
Food for thought
I therefore wonder why Leiden University lecturers seem less inclined to adopt techniques such as ARSs. Does it have to do with ICT facilities (such as the capacity of wireless access points) not being up to par? Are we missing an instigator that provides information and support, and stimulates implementation? Or are we actually more conservative in Leiden when it concerns teaching methods? Or, of course, is my view biased or is my comparison invalid?