The anti-lecture comes of age

David Miller answering questions

David Miller is not the star of this class.

Yes, that’s him with the microphone, fielding questions about Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” That’s him deconstructing a critical scene in Chapter 3 and pointing to the margin notes in his worn copy of the British classic, which is projected onto a large screen at the front of the packed auditorium. But that’s also him handing off the microphone to one after another of his 250 students so they can read their own favorite passages, so they can explain them to the rest of the class.

Welcome to English 282, “Coming of Age,” a so-called “large lecture” for nonmajors. In many ways, the class looks like any other large lecture at any large university, but there is something unusual about this lecture — namely, there’s no lecture.

You see, Miller’s class has been flipped, meaning the elements traditionally executed in the classroom become homework, freeing up class time for discussion and group projects. It’s a model gaining popularity nationwide, and one seen by many in higher education as a way to combat the sense of anonymity created by the large lecture format.

“If you’ve ever stood in front of a group of 250 students, even though they know you can see them, they act as if you can’t. They sit there and read the newspaper as if they’re invisible, even though you’re standing right in front of them,” says Miller, a longtime University of South Carolina English professor. “This is a way to break that wall of anonymity and make the students owners of the class rather than just passive participants.’”

No matter how good a teacher you are, when you go into one of those large lecture classrooms you see your numerical teaching evaluation scores just plummet. That tells me it’s probably not the professor; it’s the format.

English professor David Miller

Miller’s students read the assigned texts and watch short minilectures online before attending the Monday and Wednesday “anti-lecture.” To encourage participation, the class is broken into eight teams of 25, which compete for participation points by asking or answering pertinent questions or volunteering for activities. On Thursday or Friday, smaller groups strategize ways to increase their participation during breakout sessions led by graduate teaching assistants.

“The discussion sessions are designed to give students guidance about how to participate on Monday and Wednesday,” Miller says. “It creates a certain esprit de corps — it becomes a question of, ‘Who’s going to get the House Cup this year? Will it be Slytherin or will it be Hufflepuff?’ It also motivates students to keep an eye on each other. If you’re participating and carrying the weight, and the kid next to you is on ESPN checking football scores, you might just let him know.”

A 40-year classroom veteran, Miller speaks from experience — not all of it positive. He taught a more traditional version of the large lecture for nonmajors in 2006 and became frustrated by the atmosphere of anonymity, which he says causes students to feel detached, disaffected and alienated, both from their classmates and the material.

“No matter how good a teacher you are, when you go into one of those large lecture classrooms you see your numerical teaching evaluation scores just plummet,” he says. “That tells me it’s probably not the professor; it’s the format.”


Students in a breakout session

Better teaching through feedback

When Miller was an undergraduate at Yale, the formal assessment of classroom teaching just wasn’t done. In fact, he says, the practice only really came into vogue when he was a graduate instructor at the University of California Irvine in the early 1970s. But, having seen the evolution of classroom instruction over the decades in response to student evaluations, he is a big believer in their usefulness.

“I went through that change as I made the change from student to teacher,” he says. “When faculty started hearing what students really thought about their teaching, the scales fell from their eyes. Since then, there’s been a gradual evolution away from this idea of the classroom where the professor is the source of knowledge toward student participation of various kinds. It just makes sense.”

He began tweaking the large lecture “Coming of Age” class in response to the feedback he got in 2006, long before he had ever even heard of the flipped classroom. By 2009, his approach was significantly different than it had been three years earlier and helped him earn teacher of the year honors from the English department. The Center for Teaching Excellence then invited Miller to give a talk called “Under the Big Top: How to Succeed in the Large Lecture.”

Things really started to change, though, after Miller attended a provost’s retreat in 2014 and heard the concept of the flipped classroom described by then-provost Michael Amiridis.

On my way back to my office afterward, I actually whipped out my cellphone and called the Center for Teaching excellence and started asking questions,” he says. “That led to them inviting me to send a proposal.”

With assistance from a provost’s grant, several graduate teaching assistants and lots of man-hours, Miller turned his notes from the 2009 class into 49 minilectures and taught a pilot version of his “Coming of Age” class through the Honor’s College last spring. Feedback from that class helped him transform the syllabus before he took the class to the big stage this fall.

“The process was very labor intensive and took me into areas where my skill sets are not the greatest, for example graphic design,” Miller says with a self-deprecating laugh. “When my Honors College students, some of whom have very good design skills, saw my attempts they said, ‘Uh, Dr. Miller — maybe we could help you with that.’ But that’s what’s supposed to happen. The students trust me enough to give me straight feedback, which is very useful and very welcome.”

In fact, Miller helped secure funding for a student employee at the Center for Digital Humaities to work on the design elements of his video lectures through the Center for Teaching Excellence over the summer and invited a couple of other students to sit in this semester’s course as informal advisers. His students also get credit for coming up with the term “anti-lecture,” which Miller says is “the perfect description” for a class with no script that’s different every time out.

“I’m kind of a natural showman, an amateur actor, and I’ve been teaching since 1973, so I have a lot of confidence,” says Miller. “It still feels risky, but I think I can do it. I feel like I’m the guy who can get up there and make that circus work.”


David Miller hands off the microphone to a student

Space and Power

If Mondays and Wednesdays are a well-managed circus, the Thursday and Friday breakout sessions provide a more intimate environment where students can ask questions they couldn’t ask in the larger forum and a chance to strategize ways to pick up participation points the following week.

“This is smaller than anti-lecture, so it’s less intimidating,” says graduate teaching assistant Charlie Martin as her students compile a reading guide on “Pride and Prejudice.” “I try to make every single breakout session different because I want them to engage different sides of their brain, to experience different kinds of interaction. Sometimes I lead the discussion, sometimes I have them talk to each other.”

For Martin, a graduate of a small liberal arts college known for its low student-to-instructor ratio, the course format represents both familiar territory and a new frontier.

“The flipped classroom can seem hard at first because we’re not used to it, but I think it’s a lot cooler than a traditional lecture class because the students actually get to interact,” she says. “I think it’s also really helpful for them to have this as a space, and also to have anti-lecture as a space. Dr. Miller wants to give them a lot of power.”

And the students seem to be responding.

You get human interaction with all the discussion, but when you’re still absorbing the information you can do it at your own pace. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Freshman business major Sahil Nimji

“I like it. I think English classes should be smaller, but compared to my other lecture classes, this is better,” says freshman business major Gunner Thornton. “There’s more talking, so if you’re a little shy you’re encouraged to participate more because everyone is doing it.”

Fellow freshman and business major Sahil Nimji agrees, saying he appreciates the competitive aspect as well as the counterbalance of the large anti-lecture and the smaller breakout sessions.

“You get human interaction with all the discussion, but when you’re still absorbing the information you can do it at your own pace,” he says. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”


David Miller hands off the microphone to a student

Measuring success

The course itself is rigorous, featuring daily quizzes on the reading and the minilectures, a creative assignment, a critical essay, a midterm and a final exam. But it’s also designed to be relevant.

“I figured, if you want to teach a course that appeals to college students, teach a course called 'Coming of Age,' about the transition from being a part of one family as a child to forming your own family as an adult,” Miller says.

Texts like "Romeo and Juliet," "Pride and Prejudice," "Great Expectations" and "Native Son" explore that theme in different ways. To connect those texts to the students’ lives, Miller sometimes refers to what he calls “gateway experiences.”

“That’s the moment when you get a glimpse of the world beyond the gates of what adults have told you is reality,” he explains. “Students know that they’ve had those experiences, and with a little encouragement, they will relate their own experiences to those of the characters in the novels that we read." 

As the syllabus makes abundantly clear, Miller ultimately wants to help students acquire a skill that will yield a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment. 

“I’m trying to give students a life-changing skill that will last them beyond anything specific they remember from the class,” says Miller. “If you acquire a certain kind of reading skill, and a habit of reading, that will stay with you. To me, that’s one of the primary goals of a liberal education.”

Of course, an abstract concept like pleasure is trickier to gauge than a student’s understanding of the literature itself. To address that concern back in 2009, Miller tapped the expertise of Pam Bowers, associate vice president of assessment, who helped him devise a questionnaire Miller dubbed the "Pleasure Thermometer."

Using a scale of 1 to 5, students rate the course’s effect on their ability to take pleasure in the reading of classic literature. They also are asked to respond in writing to a series of questions about the relevancy of the assigned texts and the characters they encountered. 

“The answers I got back from that first large lecture amazed me,” says Miller. “Roughly four out of five students indicated that the course had improved their ability to take pleasure in reading, and they talked in remarkably personal ways about things in their lives that connected to things they had read — ‘my childhood in India’ kind of stuff.”

Miller used a version of the "Pleasure Thermometer" last spring with his honors students and will use it again at the end of the fall term. And if measuring pleasure sounds like an imprecise science, the pursuit of pleasure through reading is a time-honored tradition.

“Aristotle says that learning is inherently pleasurable,” Miller explains. “Wordsworth says that the purpose of poetry is to speak to the grand elementary principle of pleasure in human beings — that’s the poet’s first obligation. I’m just trying to follow in the footsteps of the great poets and philosophers.”


David Lee Miller and Charlie Martin on Flipped Classrooms

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