When I started teaching college freshmen in 2000, we joked that while it was nice teaching twice a week instead of three times, students didn't have the attention span for an 80 minute class. A 50 minute class, and you had their attention from bell to bell. But an 80 minute class, you lost them between minutes 60 and 70, for sure. Oh, MTV, how you've shortened our attention spans!
Ten years later, and things have changed. My students are now capable of focusing on a lecture for about 15-20 minutes at best. After that, even the best most attentive students' eyes glaze over, and they begin to fidget. And by fidget, I don't mean "jiggle their legs." I mean they check out, move on, pull out a phone, pull out homework from another class and set to work with a graphing calculator. They fidget mentally. Their brains jerk and jog onto other things.
Then about a year ago I read in the news that MIT had abandoned the large lecture class format for physics. They explained all the reasons--students haven't been absorbing the material, or coming to class--and since this is MIT we're talking about, brain science got involved:
In an article in the education journal Change last year, Dr. Wieman noted that the human brain “can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once.”(Italics mine.) So I thought that if the smarty-Charlies getting into MIT needed a new classroom structure, so might my working-class heros at FAU. In the Fall of 2009 I started a teaching experiment: Tuesdays they did group work (a sheet of interpretive questions that I directed each group of four to debate and come to a consensus on), Thursdays I lectured concepts and pointed out finer details in the writing. By the end of the semester, I would describe the pattern simply as, "Tuesdays my students are alive, Thursdays my students are driftwood." Same students, two days later, but the difference was astonishing (and, for me, torturous).
“But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hourlong science lecture is vastly greater,” he continued. “So we should not be surprised to find that students are able to take away only a small fraction of what is presented to them in that format.”