Lecture halls prepare for a face-lift

University considers alternatives to the traditional lecture format and lecture hall spaces

A computer science lecture in the basement of Macdonald Hall.
A computer science lecture in the basement of Macdonald Hall.
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One of the three Ellis Hall active learning classrooms.
One of the three Ellis Hall active learning classrooms.
Photo: 

An instructor stands at the front of an auditorium, lecturing to dozens or hundreds of students. This is the basis of many university courses — but it can be ineffective.

According to English professor Asha Varadharajan, students don’t learn if they’re passively receiving information in lecture classes.

“Having information just given to them will not engage them,” she said. “In my experience, I found that a combination of lecture and discussion works best.”

As students progress into upper years, lectures often give way to seminars and research projects. Aside from laboratory sections in the sciences and engineering, though, lectures remain the dominant teaching method in first- and second-year courses.

According to Varadharajan, Queen’s needs classrooms that allow both lecture and seminar styles of teaching. While smaller classrooms are often stuffy, she said, large auditoriums are generally packed full of students that are too overcrowded to write notes.

Queen’s has committed to renovating seven main auditoriums on campus, according to the University. Painting and seating upgrades are part of the scheduled work, expected to be completed by Sept. 2015.

“The condition of the classroom is important for the students to learn,” Varadharajan said, “and the room conditions have to be improved.”

Alexa Kuczynski, ArtSci ’15, said most of her lecture halls are cramped, including classes in the Biosciences Complex, Kingston Hall and Jeffrey Hall.

“Sometimes I don’t have enough leg room and some lecture halls don’t permit for someone to walk through the aisle when people are sitting,” she said, adding that it helps for lecture halls to have natural light and heating that isn’t too warm or cold.

An auditorium’s physical layout can also pose problems.

“One of my professors this year complained about the classroom set-up in Kingston Hall,” Kuczynski said. “He said he hates how the projector is in the middle of the front of the classroom because he can’t walk around.” In that classroom, students sitting in the far left of the front row often can’t see the projection screen, she said.

“If it’s a filled lecture hall you don’t have a choice, but it should be a requirement that all students should be able to see the screen.”

Kuczynski said she finds it effective when her professors walk around while lecturing, making her more likely to pay attention.

“It’s great when the professors talk about their experiences and how it relates to the class,” she said. “It’s taking a break from the structured lecture format.”

In January, Queen’s opened three new active learning classrooms in Ellis Hall, which focus on peer-directed learning, rather than on the instructor alone. One classroom has the capacity to accommodate 48 students, while another can hold up to 72.

All three classrooms feature new learning technology and are currently being used for Arts and Science and engineering courses.

According to Jill Scott, vice-provost of teaching and learning, these spaces were designed to promote active and collaborative learning by increasing student engagement.

“We’re looking at different ways to teach and now that these spaces are available we’re undergoing analyses to see how it affects the students and their learning,” she said.

Two new active learning spaces will be available by January 2015 in Theological Hall, Scott said, which will facilitate a greater focus on teamwork among classmates.

“We know that teamwork is a desirable trait that employers look for,” she said. “We’re going to be looking at how these rooms can develop this type of teamwork within the students.”

Despite the rush to engage in active learning, Scott said, moving away from the traditional lecture format wouldn’t be feasible.

“We’re not going to get rid of the lecture,” she said. “The lecture format is always going to be there, but we can do many things to improve it.”

There are effective ways to engage students in lectures, she said, such as using clickers and breaking the class into smaller discussion groups.

“A faculty member has to feel comfortable with a particular medium,” she said. “But Queen’s has been providing faculty with opportunities to make lectures more engaging for the students.”

Some students, like Mark O’Donoghue, think professors should supplement their lessons by incorporating technology into lectures.

O’Donoghue, ArtSci ’15, said the typical lecture format is ineffective for teaching difficult concepts.

“A professor lecturing without aids is an effective way to remind the class of something that they already know, or to recap last class, but not as a method to teach the entire lesson,” he said.

O’Donoghue graduated from Queen’s engineering in 2014 and is now completing a one-year degree in economics. He said he learns best when a concept is explained with a visual, which requires a projector.

The condition of the classroom also affects how he learns, he added. When most of his classes were in Dupuis Hall, he said, he barely had any room to move and his knees hit the chair in front of him.

“The rooms need to be updated in terms of creating more space for students to move and an update in their heating and air conditioning,” O’Donoghue said.

The new Ellis Hall learning rooms are a good start in how lecture halls should be constructed, he said, with chairs on wheels and up-to-date technology.

“It’s a good start, but it’s not quite there yet. We should be going towards an intuitive and comfortable learning environment,” he said.

“Right now we can’t look at the professor and the board at the same time,” he added, “which takes away from the overall learning experience.”

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