Yuan: Getting Gateway Right

by Ziqin Yuan | 10/27/14 6:39pm

Two years ago, my U.S. history teacher told us on the first day of class that he would quiz us before teaching the material. We were expected to read the textbook and learn the material beforehand, and after the quiz he would deepen our understanding of the material, fleshing out what we had read and addressing misconceptions. I was initially terrified — the thought of being tested on something before he taught it felt unfair and daunting. But after we had our first quiz, I realized that this method of teaching was far superior to the traditional lecture-then-quiz method.

Dartmouth’s Gateway Initiative is similar to this method of teaching. In the program, a few introductory classes will ask students to learn course materials first through Khan Academy and other sources as opposed to in-class lectures. Classes will then be either lecture-based, as usual, or focus on discussion and clarification. The initiative has a lot of potential. One of the biggest issues with traditional teaching is that students unfamiliar with the material may find lectures hard to follow, which hurts those who need more time to think through concepts. By encouraging and enabling students to go over the material beforehand, this method allows them to understand concepts at their own pace and not fall increasingly far behind in class.

But this initiative comes with one major caveat — that students will come to class having mastered the material. The lectured-based Gateway courses, in which students can answer questions with their smartphones or a clicker, addresses this caveat. In the discussion-based Gateway courses, however, students can easily still come to class with misconceptions that will not necessarily be addressed in class discussions. In Gateway classes, the College should use class time to flesh out and strengthen material taught before class.

In discussion-based classes, class time is meant for answering questions or talking about more in-depth topics related to the material being covered. But in introductory classes, students likely do not have any prior knowledge of the subject. Research shows that monologue-based videos, like many Khan Academy videos, effectively teach concepts but do not always address basic students’ misconceptions. By using videos to teach students and using class time for only discussion, professors may not be able to address these misconceptions — especially if students do not bring them up, which leads professors to assume students fully understand the material. Discussion-based classes favor students who have a good grasp on the material. After all, many students do not participate in discussions unless they can confidently present their opinion. These classes do not do as much for students who do not understand the material, even after studying it beforehand. Discussions — which are not as organized as lectures — may confuse students who need help understanding overarching concepts.

Instead of focusing classes on discussion, teachers who are part of the Gateway Initiative should use class time to review and enhance the online lessons. Reviewing material and learning it multiple ways would help students memorize it. Professors should come into class with the assumption that students have looked at basic concepts, but not necessarily that they understand them completely. Professors must highlight the key concepts, which may not always be as easy in discussion-based classes. Lectures that review basic concepts students have learned in videos more effectively help students understand and remember the information. Yet this does not mean that professors must restrict themselves to reiterating the videos. Instead of replacing lectures entirely, the videos should allow professors to go more in-depth with important or tricky concepts.

The Gateway Initiative is a step forward in education, but only if done correctly. Asking students to learn material ahead of time makes sure that they do not arrive to class completely confused. But Gateway classes should remain lecture-based. By making classes discussion-based, the initiative steps away from the most important purpose of introductory classes — to make sure students understand basic concepts.

Ziqin Yuan '18 is a contributing columnist.