Montana State University

MSU's high-tech classroom engages students, boosts success

August 16, 2013 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – To finish her bachelor’s degree in microbiology last spring, Samantha Comstock needed to clear one hurdle that had tripped her before – statistics. A previous failing grade in statistics would need to be replaced by a passing mark or Comstock would not graduate.

When Comstock had the option of taking the course again in MSU’s new technology-enhanced active learning, or TEAL, classroom – a high-tech space where students collaborate on assignments during class hours – she jumped at the chance.

What she found when she showed up at the newly renovated room in Gaines Hall was a class where the typical college course workflow was flipped on its head: The basic concepts that might otherwise be given in a lecture would be presented through assigned “homework,” while classroom time would be dedicated to completing assignments that usually fill the role of graded homework.

“The concepts just stick more with that kind of hands-on learning,” Comstock said. “Statistics was kind of excruciating the first time I took it, but (in the TEAL classroom) it has been a totally different experience.”

The result for Comstock was a passing grade and diploma with MSU’s class of 2013.

Comstock was one of 240 undergraduate and graduate students from all eight of MSU’s colleges who took courses in the TEAL classroom during this past spring semester.

With a second TEAL classroom coming online this fall in Wilson Hall, MSU Associate Provost David Singel said the innovations are part of a strategy initiated by Provost Martha Potvin to engage students through teamwork and hands-on learning in high-tech settings.

“We’ve seen that students absorb concepts more readily when they are working together with their peers, both in direct learning and, especially when they are helping to teach those concepts to each other,” Singel said. “There is a heightened level of engagement when students are actively working in teams.”

The results of MSU’s first use of its TEAL classroom show reason for confidence. While the six previous semesters show an average of 44 percent of students might have to retake Statistics 1, this past spring semester showed that, of students enrolled in four sections of Stats 1 that were taught in the TEAL classroom, 86 percent received grades equivalent to A, B or C.

Students taking the introductory algebra course – another of the classes that can be a stumbling block for first-year students – showed a similar trend in their results, with an improvement in A, B or C grades to 80 percent from 56 percent the previous six semesters.

In MSU’s active-learning classroom, the lectern is gone and teams of nine students sit at one of five round tables, which are equipped with flat screens and video ports for laptop computers. They are all linked to wall-mounted screens or monitors around the classroom, allowing students and professors to share mathematical proofs, chemical formulas or physics equations with their entire work group or class.

Instead of listening to a lecture, students work in small groups, with the professor, and sometimes an assistant, roving between groups to offer instruction.

At that point of contact, students are receiving instruction with a nine-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, Singel said.

“That’s part of the magic of the TEAL classrooms,” he said.

Because the students have to assist their teammates, class attendance is critical. Just to drive the point home, a portion of the class grade comes from teammates’ evaluation of each other’s participation with the group.

Ritchie Boyd, MSU’s academic technology specialist, said that group dynamic is where the real energy in a TEAL classroom comes into play.

Boyd said the university plans to phase in classrooms with the active-learning, round-table layout in other locations. These transitional spaces can eventually be brought online as “technology enhanced” classrooms in the future.

“The technology is a very useful tool, but it is the team-based, active-learning approach that enhances student outcomes,” Boyd said.

Marilyn Lockhart, interim director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, said in its first semester of use, the TEAL classroom had exceeded expectations. The 11 professors teaching 13 different sections in the Gaines Hall TEAL classroom reported higher attendance rates and generally favorable responses from students in exit surveys.

“The data really shows that courses taught in these classrooms have increased pass rates,” Lockhart said.

MSU's plans for developing active-learning classrooms grew out of faculty interest in the idea after a 2011 workshop on classroom design that included feedback from professors at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina.

In subsequent open houses and workshops, MSU faculty members were invited to come learn how to teach in a flipped, active-learning classroom.

Singel said MSU’s move to adopt new teaching models wouldn’t be possible without the enthusiasm of the faculty.

“Improving the students’ experience was the attraction for us,” Singel said. “And that has required a heroic effort from the instructors. It’s a difficult challenge to learn a new system of teaching, but the prospect of greater student success is irresistible. In the end, everybody wants the students in their classrooms to succeed.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371 or seppjannotta@montana.edu.