Princeton classes innovate to enhance teaching and learning

Teaching and Technology index visual

Faculty in academic disciplines across Princeton University are embracing new technology and innovative classroom designs to engage students in novel ways and foster collaboration. One example is Room E311 in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which was recently renovated with adjustable desks, flexible seats, mobile whiteboards and multimedia stations.

Photo courtesy of the Office of Design and Construction

In the course "Structures and the Urban Environment," students send text messages to answer the professor's lecture questions as their responses appear on screen in the front of the room.

In the English class "Princeton Film Review," students sit in small groups with their laptops connected to a central computer as they collaborate on a class blog.

And in the course "A History of the World Since 1300," the professor records his lectures online for students to watch at their own pace, freeing up class time for in-depth discussions and global history labs.

These are just a few examples of how technology is being used to enhance teaching and learning at Princeton University. While computers, multimedia tools and other digital resources have been long present in some classes, academic disciplines across campus are embracing technology to engage students in novel ways.

At the heart of the University's efforts is the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and the new faculty Council for Teaching and Learning, which will serve as an advisory board to the center. This past year, the McGraw Center expanded its mission of promoting innovative teaching and learning to encompass education technologies.

"There are so many opportunities to incorporate technology in the classroom to enhance how faculty teach and how students learn," said Lisa Herschbach, associate dean of the college and director of the McGraw Center. "It is not about using technology just for the sake of it. Our goal is to support faculty to use these new resources to further their teaching goals. It requires thinking hard about what we want students to learn and how technology can help achieve that."

Teaching and Technology Frist 309 room

At the heart of the University's integration of teaching and technology is the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. The McGraw Center supports professors such as Diana Fuss, the Louis W. Fairchild '24 Professor of English, who taught the course "The Princeton Film Review" in Frist Campus Center, Room 309, last semester. Student teams were able to work together on a class blog by connecting their laptops to a central computer and video station. (Photo courtesy of Diana Fuss)

McGraw Center collaborations

The McGraw Center now serves as the hub of academic technology resources for faculty and students, and has grown to include the Broadcast Center, Education Technologies Center and New Media Center (the offices were previously part of the Office of Information Technology).

This summer the center's programs for faculty, postdoctoral students and graduate students will move to the Lewis Library, bringing its teaching and technology initiatives together in one location. McGraw's undergraduate programs, including Study Hall tutoring, will remain at the Frist Campus Center.

Herschbach said McGraw's reorganization grew out of the University's development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the platform Coursera.

When Princeton first offered noncredit courses on Coursera in 2012, Jeff Himpele and other McGraw staff started working closely with faculty and the Broadcast Center to develop and record online classes. Himpele is now McGraw's director for teaching initiatives and programs, overseeing the center's programs for faculty, postdocs and graduate students.

"I think there was a sense that the moment had come to create more conditions for productive collaboration among McGraw and other technology-focused offices to innovate teaching in various ways," Herschbach said.

While Coursera and other online learning platforms have sparked new approaches in higher education, Herschbach said the center's work is broader than online education.

"We are focused on how the countless technology resources out there can benefit our own classrooms," she said. "Enhancing how Princeton students learn is always the core mission. It is against this value that we measure any teaching tool, whether it's a piece of chalk, an interactive whiteboard or an iPad."

Also growing out of the University's experimentation with Coursera is the Council on Teaching and Learning chaired by Harvey Rosen, the John L. Weinberg Professor of Economics and Business Policy. While the council's immediate work will be to oversee the University's online course initiative, it will also advise on issues such as innovative uses of instructional technology, academic support for undergraduate students, classroom design and assessment of teaching and learning.

"One of the goals of the new council is to ensure that we are using online course materials in a manner that truly enriches the quality of student-faculty engagement, which is the lifeblood of learning on a college campus," said Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh, who has been overseeing the University's experimentation with online learning environments. 

Active learning

One of the drivers of the recent technology wave is an interest in promoting active learning.

The Council on Science and Technology (CST), which often partners with the McGraw Center, works closely with science and engineering faculty in these efforts. Some professors are using new tools aimed at keeping students engaged during lectures; improving student retention of new concepts; and providing professors with timely feedback about how well students understand the material.

"Students learn in different ways, and incorporating technology is one way to diversify the classroom experience," said Associate Director Evelyn Laffey, who oversees CST with Director Naomi Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. "More broadly, we are always interested in new approaches to teaching that help make science and engineering relevant to students from all majors."

Teaching and Technology people bridge with Professor Garlock

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Maria Garlock breaks up her lectures for the course "Structures and the Urban Environment" with short videos, hands-on demonstrations and online poll questions. Here, students demonstrate how a cantilever bridge carries loads. (Photo courtesy of Maria Garlock)

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Maria Garlock has seen encouraging results since modifying her lectures for the class "Structures and the Urban Environment."

"Rather than lecturing for 50 minutes, I'll break up the time with short videos, group exercises and online polls where I can show the class' answers on screen," Garlock said.

For a lesson on suspension bridges this semester, she played a scene of the Brooklyn Bridge being blown up from the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises." With the aid of special effects, the middle of the bridge is shown crashing down into the water while the two ends remain intact.

Garlock then had students use their laptops or mobile phones to answer an online poll about the film's accuracy.

Teaching and Technology bridge compression example

As part of the demonstration for Garlock's lesson on cantilever bridges, the students used their laptops and smartphones to answer an online poll that displayed their answers on a screen in front of the classroom. In this example, the correct answer is A. (Photo courtesy of Maria Garlock)

"Hollywood got it completely wrong," she said. "If you actually blow up a mid-span suspension bridge the whole thing is just going to collapse. The ends are not going to stay up."

She's found that more students correctly answer review questions connected to such exercises.

"Students retain a whole lot more when you are keeping them engaged and the learning is going two ways," Garlock said.

In the introductory class "Molecular Biology 101," professors have used the Web-based platform LectureTools to turn their static slides into an interactive presentation.

The program allows students to use their mobile devices to send questions to teaching assistants while the professor lectures. Professors also can gauge how well students understand the material by having them answer poll questions at different points in the lecture. All of the materials are archived online so students can use the platform as a study tool.

"A tool like this is really ideal for a larger class where some students may not feel comfortable raising their hand and stopping the lecture if they have a question," said Jaclyn Schwalm, one of CST's assistant directors for science education. "Professors also find it helpful to get real-time feedback from students. They can adjust their teaching in the moment if the online questions show students are unclear about a concept."

Teaching and Technology bridge supervillain example

One of the drivers of the recent technology wave is an interest in promoting active learning. For a lesson on suspension bridges, Garlock played a scene from a Batman movie of the Brooklyn Bridge being blown up and then had the class answer an online poll about the film's accuracy. She has found students do better on review questions connected to such exercises. (Photo courtesy of Maria Garlock)

Technology across disciplines

The integration of education technologies is not limited to science and engineering departments.

In the Frist Campus Center, two seminar rooms often used by humanities and language classes (rooms 307 and 309) have been renovated with multimedia stations and mobile desks to promote student teamwork and interaction.

Diana Fuss, the Louis W. Fairchild '24 Professor of English, taught her course "Princeton Film Review" in Frist 309 last semester.

Students were charged with creating a film and television review blog, which they named The Princeton Buffer. Some of their time was spent seated in small groups with laptops connected to a central computer and video station where they could collaborate on the project.

Fuss also could display students' work on a central screen. And when the class moved to a different activity, they could push the desks aside and stand at the blackboard sketching ideas in chalk.

"The classroom is really pedagogy paradise," Fuss said. "I'm no longer fighting the room when I teach, but fully utilizing the space, from screens to floors to walls. It makes for an active learning environment where students can brainstorm and problem solve together. Students really learn best by doing."

Junior Rebecca Zhang said it was her first time taking a class that used multimedia resources in such an integral way.

"As a class about film and television, we had to take into account a lot of visuals, whether it was looking at movie posters and taglines or deciding the layout of our blog," Zhang said. "Being able to use the video stations facilitated group work of this kind. Then when the process moved on to a discussion involving the whole class, the projector and rest of the room's setup really felt like we were an editorial board coming together for a meeting."

In other classes, professors are experimenting with flipping their classrooms by working with the Broadcast Center to record their lectures online. Students watch lectures at their convenience before class, which frees class time for discussions, reviewing difficult material, group projects, guest speakers and other interactive activities.

Teaching and Technology before and after classrooms

The University's Classroom Design Committee, McGraw Center, Registrar, and Office of Design and Construction are working to renovate or reconfigure classroom spaces on campus with flexible seating, moveable desks, multimedia stations and other resources to support effective teaching and learning. Room E311 in the engineering school is among the recently renovated spaces, as shown in these before-and-after photos. (Photos courtesy of the Office of Design and Construction)

History professor Jeremy Adelman, the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture, was an early experimenter with this model for his course "A History of the World Since 1300," which he teaches on campus and has offered publicly via online learning platforms.

"During the past two years, I've really gone from flipping the classroom to flipping the entire course," Adelman said.

Once a week, Adelman leads a global history lab where Princeton students work in groups to answer timed questions about the significance of historical events.

"It is so much better for them than sitting in a lecture hall listening to me," Adelman said. "Now they have my full energy allocated to a high-octane dialogue and exchange. I give them instant feedback of what they got right and what they got wrong."

For the class precepts, students meet in small teams with Adelman and preceptors to work on historical case studies. The teams analyze primary historical texts, brainstorm ideas and craft collaborative essays. The essays are posted to a blog so all students — both at Princeton and those around the world watching Adelman's online lectures — can use them as references.

"The students are really practicing the art of being a historian, and can feel proud of the work they are putting out into the world," Adelman said.

Teaching and Technology EQuad 200 room

The design of classrooms themselves is important to active learning. The configuration of Room H200 in the engineering school allows undergraduate and graduate students to build models, collaborate on designs, critique each other's work and brainstorm new ideas. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Design and Construction)

Classroom design also key

As the Frist seminar rooms exemplify, the classrooms themselves can be as important as the technology inside them.

"The kind of teaching that a space enables is key," Herschbach said. "As we think about technology in the classroom, we also think about things like chairs and desks that can be reconfigured for group activities."

For example, a few science classes are trying to move from auditorium-style lecture halls to large, open rooms where students are seated at round tables. The setup makes it easier for students to collaborate on class exercises and for professors to walk around answering questions.

In the engineering school, rooms E311 and H200 have been turned into colorful spaces with adjustable desks, flexible seating arrangements, mobile whiteboards, and various multimedia components. The rooms allow undergraduate and graduate students to build models, collaborate on designs, critique each other's work and brainstorm new ideas.

The University's Classroom Design Committee last year issued recommendations for improving more classroom spaces, including equipping more classrooms with user-friendly technology and moveable furniture.

"We believe that classrooms impact the character of teaching and learning, and the needs of effective learning should help drive the design of the classroom," said committee chair Mung Chiang, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of the Keller Center.

Chiang continued: "We also think that functionality of classrooms should be emphasized alongside with the form. As an example, having connectors to different types of laptops for each projector, and a one-button push that reliably projects the laptop on the screen will be very useful: simplicity and reliability are as important as rich features."

The committee, McGraw Center, Registrar and Office of Design and Construction are working to renovate or reconfigure more classroom spaces.

"There are so many ways that Princeton is looking at innovations in the classroom," Herschbach said. "There is no standard, or one-size-fits-all approach. A professor's individual teaching goals and how students may learn best will always lead."