Advancements in learning Featured

1:13pm EDT August 30, 2004
It's that time of year again when students load up their backpacks, stock up on pens and highlighters and prepare to wedge themselves into desks at college classrooms and lecture halls around the country.

For those of us who attended a traditional college or university, the opening of a lengthy lecture is a familiar -- often-dreaded -- experience. Most students naturally gravitate toward the back of the classroom in hopes of avoiding eye contact with the professor. Or, in some cases, it's the teacher's assistant who fills in while the professor is conducting research in some faraway locale.

While this traditional format has long been the hallmark of higher education in America, it is quickly disappearing from classrooms around the nation. Colleges and universities are beginning to realize that students accustomed to today's multimedia environment are simply not learning properly in a 19th century-style lecture. Just as elementary and secondary education has changed since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, so has higher education.

The major difference you'll find on college campuses is that faculty members are facilitators and not primarily lecturers. They have the knowledge and authority to present the lesson, but realize that a top-down approach to education simply does not work.

Instead, instructors are now introducing the topic, then facilitating a lively discussion in which their knowledge is discussed, debated and sometimes challenged. This dialogue and information exchange creates a higher level of awareness as well as new knowledge and skills.

While the Socratic method has been around for centuries, it is being embraced in new ways throughout higher education, especially in institutions that cater to working adults. If you step inside one of our classrooms in Columbus at the University of Phoenix, you'll find an entirely different picture than the traditional lecture hall.

Instead of students taking a back seat in a large auditorium, you'll find working adults actively discussing the course's learning objectives. More important, you'll hear their thoughts on how these specific objectives apply to their daily jobs -- a discussion you won't necessarily hear in many traditional college classrooms.

In addition to open discussion in the classroom, colleges are encouraging discussion outside of the classroom. Students are assigned to small learning teams, which meet each week in person or online between classes to facilitate and reinforce learning.

They also complete group assignments and projects, much as teams operate in the business world. On average, these teams meet four to five hours per week, allowing students' knowledge during classroom sessions to be further debated and applied to real-life situations.

What is the result of this new trend in education? Our students overwhelmingly tell us that our classes have relevance to their daily lives. While academic theories are discussed, instructors also show how each topic is relevant to the business world in which we work. An evening lesson can be applied at work the next day.

This type of education may seem "too loose" to some. Critics claim that an instructor who facilitates a discussion may not possess the same amount of control in a classroom as a traditional lecturer. However, we find the exact opposite is true in our classes.

By outlining the relevance of each lesson and opening up the classroom for discussion, our instructors gain the respect of their students, who are searching for practical, applicable tools in the business world. Eric Ziehlke is associate campus director for the University of Phoenix-Columbus Campus. The University of Phoenix is the nation's largest private university, with more than 200,000 students at more than 140 campuses in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Reach him at (614) 433-0095 or Eric.Ziehlke@phoenix.edu.