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Expert shares tips to make teaching as dynamic as research

PULLMAN, Wash. – At campuses the size of Washington State University, where the number of students surpasses the population of small towns, large lecture halls can be jam-packed with undergraduates.
How can we better teach a sea of anonymous faces?
That’s what internationally known neuroscientist Diane O’Dowd addressed before an overflow crowd at WSU Wednesday. 
O’Dowd, who teaches at the University of California-Irvine, should know. Not only does she have 400 freshmen in her intro-level biology classes, but she was awarded $1million by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for being both a top researcher and a great teacher.
Understanding how students learn
“It’s not just about how we teach students the facts. It’s also about how students learn,” O’Dowd told the audience of faculty members and students at the Smith Center for Undergraduate Teaching, Learning and Technology.  Mounting research shows that when it comes to student learning, interaction is the key, she said: “We need to create opportunities to engage our students in class.”
During her presentation, “Creating intellectually stimulating environments in large classes,” O’Dowd practiced what she preaches, engaging in spunky dialogue with an audience packed inside a large lecture room, breaking the audience into small groups and encouraging members to use clickers to answer questions.
 For centuries, professors have stood behind lecterns and talked while students listened. But that’s no longer enough, studies conclude. So the idea is to transform large classes from one-way exchanges into interactive environments where students can apply what they learn in class, said O’Dowd.
Among her suggestions:
• Use clickers effectively. These gadgets that resemble TV remotes help connect students to the instructor and the topic under discussion. By having students answer multiple-choice questions via the clicker, and then immediately projecting their responses on a screen in front of the room, the teacher can assess whether students understand the subject.
• Break the class into small groups to do learning activities. Here, students can solve a problem, analyze data or even locate a strength or weakness in a hypothesis. Then, each group writes its response on an index card and hands it in. The teacher reads the answers out-loud and they are discussed as a class.
• Use garage demos. By using no-cost props, or “garage demos” as O’Dowd calls them, teachers can make concepts easier to understand by presenting them in 3-D.  Old socks, tennis balls, garden hoses and old Halloween wigs are examples of what she uses.
• Employ online quizzes. Four questions for each lecture.
Rescuing the lecture
The idea isn’t to nix the lecture – the very centerpiece of American education, first-grade through college – said O’Dowd. It’s to supplement it.
“Let’s make our teaching as dynamic as our research,” she said.
O’Dowd’s visit to WSU continues with workshops today and Friday. It is sponsored by the WSU College for Veterinary Medicine’s Teaching Academy and WSU’s Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning. See an earlier WSU News article here

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