Promoting Student-Centered Learning in a Studio Classroom Environment

Deborah J. Rumsey
Department of Statistics
Kansas State University

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 6, Number 2 (Summer 2000)

A new state-of-the-art statistics studio classroom is in its first semester of use at Kansas State University. The classroom is the only one of its kind, creating unique opportunities to promote student-centered, team-based learning within a "high-tech" "high-touch" environment. It is being used to teach the introductory level statistics course. Currently, the new environment is being offered to students in the social sciences; an extension is eventually planned to include students in business and the natural and physical sciences.

The classroom was designed by two interdisciplinary teams from Kansas State University representing the Department of Statistics, the Educational Communications Center, the Information Technology Assistance Center, the Division of Continuing Education, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Services and Technology, Elizabeth Unger (who funded the project.) The first classroom development team focussed on the physical design of the classroom, while the second team focussed on developing appropriate curricular materials and learning technology. Members of the KSU Department of Statistics involved in the project include Deborah Rumsey, James Higgins, Lynda Ballou, Dallas Johnson, and John Boyer, Jr.

The objective in designing the studio classroom was to create an environment for student-centered learning and collaboration, where the instructors serve as learning facilitators, rather than lecturers. The classroom is managed by a team of two instructors, primarily graduate teaching assistants, and seats forty students. The students meet twice a week for 75 minutes each time. The room contains five octagon-shaped tables. Each table contains four computers; each computer is shared by two students who comprise a team. Teams are chosen at random, and are rearranged several times during the semester. This allows students the opportunity to work with several different teammates during the course, and helps to create an environment of cohesion and collaboration. The tables are large enough to provide ample work space for the students, and are arranged so that instructors move freely about the classroom and between the tables (one table in each corner, and one table in the middle of the classroom.) Comfortable chairs with casters allow students to focus on their work in a professional, but comfortable environment.

The studio classroom is outfitted with 20 high speed computers, each with a 21-inch monitor allowing for easy viewing by both teammates. This helps students to stay focussed on their activities. The computers are linked to a server, and are also networked together using new technology called Classnet. Classnet technology allows the instructor to direct traffic on all of the computers in the class using a simple control panel. For example, suppose the students at computer #4 have a really interesting histogram, and would like to be able to share it with the rest of the class. Using Classnet, the instructor can project what is displayed on computer #4 onto any group of computers in the classroom with a touch of the control pad. This technology enables students to collaborate and exchange their results with their classmates easily and spontaneously. Instructors can also demonstrate ideas to the class easily without having the need for all students to be facing one direction in the classroom.

Other technology that is used in the statistics studio classroom includes a high resolution visual presenter. A visual presenter is basically an overhead projector with a camera on the head. It creates an image of the object, digitizes the image, and projects it onto a screen. In this case, the image is projected onto all of the computers in the class. An additional feature of the visual presenter is that it will project the image of any object (not just overhead transparencies) including newspaper articles, textbooks, dice, or any other 3-dimensional object. This allows for the instructor to extend the range of items that can be presented to students. The instructor podium includes a computer, the visual presenter, speakers, VCR, and a mouse pen. A mouse pen is used to draw images onto the instructor's mouse pad that are then projected onto the students' computers. This gives a chance for the instructor to interact with the technology in a manner similar to the way John Madden scribbles on our TV screens during a televised football game while he talks to us. It keeps the instructor in touch with students; this is especially important in a high technology environment.

New curricular materials were specially designed for use in the statistics studio classroom. The materials stress student-centered, discovery-based learning through interactive team activities. These activities engage students in discovering, applying, and communicating statistical ideas orally and in writing on a daily basis. Instructors typically will begin each class period with a short review/preview session providing an overview of what was covered yesterday and what will be covered today. Following this 10-15 minute session, students are turned loose to proceed at their own pace through the materials for the day. What is not finished during the day is left for homework. All materials are available on the course website for 24-hour access. Many of the activities involve use of the Internet (for example, a link to the U.S. Census Bureau to discuss sampling; a link to the Gallup Organization for information on how they conduct their polls.) The major statistical package used in the classroom is MS Excel, in addition to some new learning technology that is still under construction.

The statistics studio classroom concept was first pilot tested during the summer of 1999 with 17 students in a makeshift classroom. The second pilot test occurred during the fall 1999 semester, with four sections of 40 students each. It was during this time that the actual studio classroom was being constructed.

The response from the pilot tests was very positive. Students felt the environment was very relaxing, and they enjoyed the teamwork. Using a team-based approach, we were able to customize our teaching and reach more students at the level where help was most needed.

We did notice that this type of learning environment requires a strong set of resource materials, especially materials for using MS Excel. If strong support materials are not made available to students, or if the students are not expected to make use of those materials, the instructors can be overwhelmed with technical questions. If, however, the technical issues can be addressed through resource materials, the students feel much freer to discuss more of the real statistical issues.

We also realized that this environment requires a strong support system for the instructors; therefore, a 2-day orientation was developed. The spring 2000 semester marks the first official use of the new statistics studio classroom. We are teaching 11 sections of 40 students each (5 sections are led by a faculty and graduate teaching assistant team, and 6 sections are led by graduate teaching assistant teams.) The course is running very smoothly; instructors are very excited about the opportunities to communicate with students. They enjoy helping students learn statistics and watching them develop their own way of communicating the statistical ideas with each other. Students enjoy the new environment very much, and seem to enjoy the opportunities for collaborative learning and information exchange.

Remaining challenges include developing new ways of assessing student knowledge within this new environment, and helping students to realize that we are not always going to tell them the answer -- that they are always encouraged to think things through using the resources available to them. We promote the idea that the student is the primary person responsible for his/her own learning, but they can also rely upon the other resources available to them: the course materials, the computer, the Internet, their teammate, other classmates, and finally, the instructors. Once students realize they can think independently and that they don't need the instructor as much as they thought they did, it is truly a magic moment. The biggest difference between the studio classroom environment and the traditional lecture style environment is that it requires the involvement of all students on a daily basis. Instructors can customize their discussions and get to know each student individually, and they can much more easily assess where the class is, in terms of learning the material.

Students in the studio classroom are expected to develop the life skills that a productive member of today's workforce is expected to have: collaboration, teamwork, the ability to communicate orally and in writing, and personal accountability. Teams are rotated several times during the semester; each time new teams are constructed, students are asked to fill out an evaluation form regarding their teammate, as well as their own contribution and performance. These evaluations, combined with attendance, and an assessment by the instructors of the team's ability to work together, compose 10% of the final grade. We have found that student professionalism and accountability has been very high since implementing this system; students are less likely to be absent when they know that their teammate will have to go through the daily materials on their own.

The statistics studio classroom promotes and encourages student-centered, discovery-based, team learning. Initial results show that this type of classroom can help students gain skills that are important for today's workforce, namely collaboration and teamwork, and it helps to increase the motivation and enthusiasm of instructors and students by allowing for additional ways for them to participate and communicate with each other.

If you would like more information regarding the KSU Department of Statistics Studio Classroom, please contact us! Deborah J. Rumsey ( Department of Statistics, Dickens Hall Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66503.

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