The following are excerpts from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, to be continued next week, focuses on efforts universities have been making to improve their teaching methods.
SAPPORO–“It’s time for a quiz,” said Associate Prof. Hisao Suzuki, before giving his 120 students a multiple-choice question on heat energy. With that, the students at Hokkaido University’s fisheries department pointed remote-controllike devices at a screen above the lectern, and then pressed the appropriate buttons, thereby transmitting their answers.
The devices, nicknamed “clickers,” are used as part of an audience response system. Students are each given a keypad, with the model used at Hokkaido University having 12 buttons, including the numbers 0 to 9. When students push the numbered button they believe is correct, the computer, which is connected to an exclusive receiver, automatically collates the data and displays the results on the screen.
Such classroom clickers have been appearing an increasing number of Western universities, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. In Japan, on the other hand, the Sapporo-based national university is one of only a handful of schools to use such devices, with Tohoku University and Kochi University of Technology as other examples.
During the lesson in Suzuki’s Basic Physics II course, the result shown on the screen told him that only 30 percent of the class could answer correctly.
“Was that question difficult for you?” the professor then asked, while displaying five choices on the screen regarding the question’s difficulty level.
The students once again pushed bottoms, the result of which showed half of them thought so. After taking in the students’ responses, Suzuki tried the lecture again, but with a different approach.
The 47-year-old has been using the classroom clicker system since April 2007, and it has enabled him to navigate his lessons while checking his students’ level of comprehension. The professor also has found that, with the devices, his students do not fall asleep or chat any more during class.
One student who is struggling with physics said he likes using the clickers because it is “fun…like a quiz show.”
It was five years ago, during a visit to the University of California, Berkeley, that Suzuki first saw classroom clickers. When he observed a lesson attended by about 500 students, he noticed the classroom’s silence was broken only when they used the keypads.
The scene made Suzuki envious, because back at his university, he regularly found his students falling asleep or whispering among themselves within the first 10 minutes of a lesson.
At the same time, however, the scene made the professor realize that he needed to find more creative teaching methods. Until then, he had just followed a traditional method in which teachers give one-sided lectures while writing on the blackboard from time to time.
As a student, the young Suzuki had no problem taking courses offered with that approach, so he never thought about the feelings of students who could not keep up with his lessons.
“I realized that they fell asleep or chatted because they did not understand their lessons,” he recalled.
The keypads seemed to be the “ultimate solution” for problems in his teaching. After returning to Japan, he began to examine how he could use the devices in his own teaching. Nonetheless, he initially felt hesitant to ask his university to pay for the clickers, which cost 10,000 yen each.
Therefore, when he first introduced quiz sessions, Suzuki instead asked his students to raise their hands, but found that few participated because they did not want to feel embarrassed by making mistakes in front of others.
Realizing that anonymity was key, the associate professor requested that the university purchase the devices.
Soon after the clicker system was introduced, however, Suzuki found there were some key elements in using the tools to their fullest.
For many, the manner in which a teacher speaks is important, Suzuki has found, but speaking is not something that he is good at. Therefore, the professor has studied the narrative skills of some popular emcees on TV quiz shows. Now he tries to pause after he says, “The answer is…” to create dramatic tension. He also has begun to speak with his students in a humorous way.
Another key issue is the difficulty of the questions he asks, because students can get bored if they are either too easy or too hard. Suzuki creates questions that not all of his students will be able to answer during any given lesson. When questions are found to be difficult for most students, he lets them discuss the topic among themselves, or he performs experiments on the spot to help them understand visually.
At the same time, Suzuki has his students produce questions and explanations for every class. They receive prizes, such as stationery, from the professor whenever they perform particularly well in a given class.
Suzuki usually spends about 20 minutes on the quiz session during his 90-minute lessons, making it difficult for him to give his students explanations in detail about physics. Therefore, he regards the course as a “place that will motivate them to study,” thus focusing on discussing basics only.
To encourage them to go beyond the basics that he has taught them, Suzuki has launched a Web site featuring materials for self-learning, such as reference materials, additional tasks and mini-tests.
Since this April, one of Suzuki’s colleagues, lecturer Masaki Takesada, has been following the pioneer’s path in his Basic Physics course.
Because each clicker is given a registered number, the 41-year-old has found that it is easy for him to grasp the kinds of issues with which each student is struggling by referring to these numbers. “The devices enable me to quickly accommodate my lessons so that I can better meet the needs of individual students,” Takesada said.
It has so far been difficult for Suzuki to determine exactly what kind of academic results the classroom clickers have brought. However, the assignments submitted by his students suggest that more and more of them are learning on their own.
At the very least, the introduction of the clicker system has changed the attitude of Suzuki, who chose an academic career merely for research purposes.
“Now I enjoy teaching my courses,” the professor said with a laugh. “I’ve realized how profound it is to teach students.”
Universities see need to motivate their students
As higher educational institutions in Japan face the situation of having fewer applicants than admission spaces, they are changing their role from merely teaching students to motivating them to learn on their own. A key to such a major change is improving how courses are taught.
In April, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry revised its university establishment standards, thus stipulating that higher educational institutions should make organizationwide efforts to improve their teaching.
It means that they should now not only attract students, but also train them all the way up to their graduation. In other words, today’s universities must find better ways of teaching courses.
The traditional approach in which teachers give one-sided lectures in large lecture halls is becoming less popular. Instead, more and more universities are making efforts to encourage their students to study on their own initiative. Examples of such measures include having them work together on research or discussion tasks and uploading to their intranets self-learning programs linked to courses, with which students can prepare or review their lessons.
When The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a survey in May about the kinds of measures universities made to improve their teaching, 76 percent of the 499 respondents said they made some form of organizationwide effort to motivate their students, while 11 percent said they would do so within the year ahead.
These percentages indicate that higher educational institutions today share the same concern: how to deal with unmotivated students or those without a specific purpose for attending a university.
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