What Is Wrong with This Picture?

Higher Ed October / Special / October 17, 2018

-Jon Bergmann-

Recently, I had a chance to visit a major university that has been using lecture capture software to record lectures for some time. I was taken around by one of their faculty, and we dropped into several lecture theater classrooms. One unusual scene stood out: very few students were present for class. And when I say very few students, I mean VERY few students. In a class with an enrollment of 392 students, I would estimate that 30 students were present.

In another lecture theater, I took the photo to your right, which illustrates the problem. Keep in mind that this is a real class, and the professor is continuing to lecture to an almost empty room.

This institution also streams the classes, so you might argue that most of the students are watching the stream, or they watch a recording of the stream. However, the data shows that at most 20% are watching the stream. Right before exams, a few more will watch the course lectures, but this is an abysmal result.

Also, to accommodate the online audience, they have a graduate student monitor the stream so that those online can ask questions. When we chatted with the moderator, we asked how often an online student asked a question. He said, “No one” had ever asked a question via the online platform in nine weeks of lectures.


My guide shared with me about a professor who had a class of over 100 students, and at present, she is only having three students show up to lecture. Yet she persists in lecturing.


At what point do we ask the “elephant in the room” questions?  

  • Why do professors continue to lecture in these settings?
  • Why do they persist in a model that the “customers” have shown isn’t working for them?
  • If lecture is so essential, how can students still pass the classes if they don’t even show up or watch the stream?


When I asked my guide about how his colleagues felt about teaching to almost empty lecture halls, he surprisingly said they were fine with it. Some said they are mostly at the university to do research and teaching is mostly a nuisance. (Fewer students mean less work for them.) Others said they see this as merely part of their jobs and can’t imagine changing.  


At what point, do we look at the empty chairs and admit: “Something’s wrong here!” This phenomenon is an unsustainable model. Students aren’t learning, and higher education has just become a tick to check so that students can get a degree and move on with their life.


Contrast that to a conversation with Peter Wagstaff, a marketing professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches a class of about 1,000 students, and he is getting around 87% attendance. What is different? Peter is flipping his class. He canceled all of the large group lectures and conducts all of his classes in smaller “workshop” classes of about 40-50 students. These are the equivalent of recitation sections in US colleges. Each workshop is led by two tutors who are usually graduate students. Yet here is the kicker, students still get a lecture. Peter pre-records his lectures and students watch these before coming to the workshop class. Then the class becomes an active place of learning.


I had the privilege of attending one of these workshops and was blown away. Before the class, students had watched a pre-recorded lecture on the different strategies companies use to price products. When students arrived, they sat in their pre-assigned groups and began a short group quiz that asked them key items about pricing. Students worked together, and their group got scored on the percent of correct answers. This practice created some peer pressure for other students to watch the pre-class video. Since the quiz was graded, those who had not done the pre-class work were not helpful to their group.

For the rest of the 90-minute class, students did two activities. First, they were given a task to leave the class and find examples of the ten pricing strategies they learned from the video pre-work. After 20 minutes they returned, and the teachers went over the answers with the students in small groups.

Next, the students were given some data about airline prices and asked to think through how airlines price tickets using a template that they had learned about during the pre-class work. I sat in on a few of these conversations and was impressed with both their engagement and the depth of their thoughts.

I was encouraged to wander and chat with students. I engaged in the activities with the students and asked them what they thought of the class. When I chatted with them about their thoughts about learning in a flipped classroom, they were quick to compare Dr. Wagstaff’s class to some of their other lecture-centric classes. The students candidly told me there wasn’t even a comparison. They shared how they got to know their peers, their tutors, and even how they felt they knew Peter, even though he wasn’t always in each workshop. Just having him record the lectures connected him to them in ways that perhaps isn’t possible in the large lecture hall class.


Later, Peter showed me the data he collects on his students and their performance. He tracks those with little engagement and then intervenes with those who have not done the pre-work. The results of his intervention revealed that students who got an email sharing his concern were likely to re-engage in the class and become successful.  


Isn’t it time to realize that the old lecture method doesn’t work? Isn’t it time to realize that active classrooms are pivotal to student learning? This crisis in higher education must end!

Jon Bergmann
Jon Bergmann Bergmann
Jon Bergmann is one of the pioneers of the Flipped Classroom Movement. He is leading the worldwide adoption of flipped learning through the Flipped Learning Global Initiative (FLGI) flglobal.org. He is working with governments, schools, corporations, and education non-profits. Jon has coordinated and guided flipped learning projects around the globe. Locations include: China, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, the Middle East, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Canada, South America, and the United States. Jon is the author of nine books including the bestselling book: Flip Your Classroom which has been translated into 13 languages. He is the founder of the global FlipCon conferences which are dynamic engaging events which inspire educators to transform their practice through flipped learning.

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