A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Rethinking the Classroom

By Buzz McClain, BA '77 on May 28, 2013

There have been serious discussions about razing the Lecture Hall on Mason’s Fairfax Campus. In truth, when it happens, few professors and students will miss it.

There are many reasons why the building, built in 1967, might eventually come down, but among them, its fixed tiered-seating classroom represents a rapidly outmoded method of instruction that is being replaced by more dynamic and effective teaching methods.

Across Mason’s campuses and elsewhere, professors are exploring techniques for imparting content and experimenting with advances in technology as the administration invests in the infrastructure—including new “active learning” classrooms—that will usher in a new era of higher education.

Mason history professor T. Mills Kelly takes students on a tour of an old family cemetery in his Dead in Virginia historical methods class. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason history professor T. Mills Kelly takes students on a tour of an old family cemetery in his Dead in Virginia historical methods class. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Admittedly, innovative teaching is not new; there’s always been the rogue (and usually student favorite) professor who shied away from the “sage on the stage” pedagogy, but these days the unusual is becoming commonplace.

“What we’ve seen in the past year or so is innovative teaching moving to the mainstream,” says journalist Anya Kamenetz, who covers higher education for Fast Company magazine. Kamenetz, author of several books about transformative teaching, participated in Mason’s Forum on the Future of Higher Education last November. “There have always been quirky professors out there using tools like blogging or [personal digital assistants], but what’s different now is leadership at large universities is pushing these initiatives.”

The reasons are many, but simple. In short, says Mason provost Peter N. Stearns, generations change. “You’ve got a generation that’s used to getting different forms of information in different ways; any sensible teacher modifies things based on the audience.”

In Mason marketing professor Laurie Meamber's Consumer Behavior course, students learn how to recognize and analyze consumer behavior by taking an in-depth look at feature films. Photo by Creative Services.

In Mason marketing professor Laurie Meamber’s Consumer Behavior course, students learn how to recognize and analyze consumer behavior by taking an in-depth look at feature films. Photo by Creative Services.

Not only have the students changed, but, Stearns adds, “technology changes. We can set up classrooms in ways that were impossible until even fairly recently,” such as the new active learning studio in Exploratory Hall that looks more like a high-tech restaurant than a classroom.

The initial investment in creative classrooms is vital, Stearns says, since research shows “if you can organize classrooms for a greater sense of student participation, reduce if not eliminate reliance on lectures, you’re going to have a more effective and deeper point of learning.”

Reinvention, Across All Disciplines

Mason professors, encouraged by the flexibility afforded by the administration, have already enjoyed success with nontraditional teaching methods. Two years ago, history professor T. Mills Kelly, vexed by his students’ inability to be critical about online sources, designed a class that constructed and distributed online hoaxes that made national headlines.

“I wanted the students to be more skeptical about sources,” he says. “Historians don’t tend to teach in ways that are innovative. We’re innovative about content, but in terms of teaching, not at all. I just wanted [the class] to be different.”

Kelly is on the school’s Learning Environments Committee, which examines how best to stage a class for new pedagogies. “If you’re going to think about how a classroom might be different, you have to think about how teaching and learning are going to be different,” he says.

For example, students studying in some classes in the Volgenau School of Engineering, Kelly points out, “are learning in project work environments. After all, when they graduate, they’re going to do project work, and this is a way to introduce them to it.”

Marketing professor Laurie Meamber, who teaches in the School of Management, takes her students’ focus off the printed page and onto the big screen. In her Consumer Behavior class, students watch for marketing influences in the actions of characters from popular movies.

The undergraduate class “started as a novel way to engage students but also ties into the growth of visual culture and visual learning,” she says. “Students are immersed in their daily lives with visual media—YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and more traditional popular media including film and television. This type of assignment allows students to analyze and reflect on movies as a medium that portrays many examples of consumers and consumer behavior.”

The presentation component of Meamber’s project actually removes a standard piece of technology: “The presentation consists of a 15-minute overview [of the student’s paper] conveyed in a creative manner and without using presentation software,” she says. “In many other business school courses, students are asked to use presentation software; this assignment asks them to think of an alternative, creative way to present the material. Creativity, of course, is an important skill for marketing students to master.”

But no matter what the delivery system for the content—social media notes, computerized instruction, video lectures, or even books—the methods of teaching must be achievement based. “You have to define outcomes and then identify that those outcomes were achieved in some way,” Kelly points out.

Resistance, Then Acceptance

Of course, no change comes without pushback, and that’s true for the trend to promote new teaching methods, particularly for online teaching that is increasing in popularity with students as well as administrators (see sidebar). The source of the rejection, says associate provost for distance education J. Goodlett McDaniel, “is from the faculty, actually. If you ask faculty the best part of their job, they’ll usually say ‘teaching’ and that everything else is not as satisfying, such as committee work.” Taping lectures and creating online exams are not on their desirable list.

For some instructors, McDaniel suggests, “you have to figure out what the intrinsic rewards are for teaching online. But it’s funny: Once they’ve taught online, they don’t necessarily have ‘aha’ moments, but they send long e-mails about the comments students made and how excited they are.”

Even teachers who have been at it for decades are changing their methods, including Stearns, who has taught history for 50 years.

“I try to ‘flip’ the class a little bit, so recurrently I have students do things in the middle of a class session that they would ultimately do on an exam,” he says. “I gave up formal lecturing a long time ago, and I’m conscious of trying to introduce new things. But last year,” he says with a laugh, “I had a bad classroom—it was small and tiered and I couldn’t move anyone around.”

The bottom line, says Fast Company’s Kamenetz, is not change for change’s sake. “What’s needed overall is a change in attitude. We’ve all been used to teaching one way for a very, very long time in a limited number of ways,” she says. “Now the name of the game is change, and trying different things, and I think that’s the way it’s going to be for a very long time.”

Sidebar: Going the Distance

Distance education goes by many names—online education, e-learning, distance learning, among others—but it started after World War II with another tag: correspondence courses. These days, professors and students don’t communicate through the U.S. mail; instead, course content and tests are distributed in a variety of high-tech methods. But the reasons students study away from campus remain the same.

A class at work in one of Mason's TelePresence Classrooms, which can connect students in multiple locations. Photo by Creative Services.

A class at work in one of Mason’s TelePresence Classrooms, which can connect students in multiple locations. Photo by Creative Services.

Practicing nurses, for example, work shifts or live remotely, says Carol Quam Urban, assistant dean at Mason’s School of Nursing. With Mason’s distance learning programs, nurses acquire advanced degrees on their own time, at their own pace, even if they live overseas, and even if completion requires visual appraisal. “They use their laptops to record physical assessments–usually on family members–and post them to their Blackboard site,” she says as an example of how hands-on training is handled. Faculty review, comment, and grade the procedures sometimes thousands of miles away.

According to J. Goodlett McDaniel, associate provost for distance education, Mason’s distance education initiatives have been a school priority for decades, with new strategies quickly implemented to accompany each improvement in technological delivery systems. Today, one-third of Mason’s students take at least one online course or more, “and that goes up 30 percent a year,” he says.

Among the schools investing in advanced methods of distance education are the Volgenau School of Engineering, now offering a master of computer science and a bachelor of science in information technology, and the College of Health and Human Services’ pathway for registered nurses to a bachelor of science program. Coming in fall 2013, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution will offer a master’s degree in conflict resolution, and the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) will have two master of education programs online. CEHD is also busy building distance learning programs for assistive technology and master’s programs in special education and applied behavioral analysis.

Professor Maggie Daniels’s popular wedding planning course in the School of Recreation, Health, and Tourism started with one online section; it is now up to six sections. “For the spring 2013 semester, all sections are fully online,” says Daniels, who also serves on Mason’s Distance Learning Council. “That was the innovation with this course; I felt it was conducive to an online learning opportunity, and it freed up classroom space at the Fairfax Campus.”

Because of the visual nature of the course, Daniels opted to videotape her lectures and appearances by guest speakers from the event-planning industry. “We videotaped 28 lectures,” she says, “and it was insane. But we’re lucky at Mason to have the resources to do that. GMU-TV has fantastic people who really know what they were doing. Our goal was to make it as similar as possible to a classroom experience and I think we did that.”

Distance education has come a long way from 1945’s correspondence courses, and while thousands of students reap the benefits of advanced degrees from remote locations, it’s not always easy. Naturally, this has created an opportunity: a distance education course called EDIT 201 Strategies for Online Learning Success. And yes, it’s online.


  1. Thank you for the cover story for the Spring 2013 issue of Mason Spirit on flipped learning. As the executive director of the Flipped Learning Network and a graduate of GMU (Ph.D. ’09), I was pleased to see many professors embracing this new model of teaching – when the focused is changed from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered learning environment.
    The FLN, along with Dr. Patrick McKnight at GMU, recently released the first meta-analysis on flipped learning. For copies of the literature review please see http://www.flippedlearning.org/research.

    Comment by Kari M. Arfstrom, Ph.D. — August 12, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  2. Two of George Mason’s own — Professor Patrick McKnight and graduate student Noora Hamden–co-authored a lit review of the Flipped Learning model in collaboration with researchers from Pearson’s Center for Educator Effectiveness and the Flipped Learning Network. Here’s a link to the report, which includes a shorter white paper and 2-page Executive Summary: http://researchnetwork.pearson.com/educator-effectiveness/resources/flipped-learning-resources

    Hopefully this is a helpful resource for those interested in flipping their classrooms!

    Katherine McKnight, Principal Dir. of Research
    Pearson’s Center for Educator Effectiveness

    Comment by Katherine McKnight — August 12, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

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