Michael Brown, a new assistant professor in the School of Education, dedicates his work to improving teaching and learning in large college lecture classes. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Improving teaching and learning in large lecture classes

As a college student, Michael Brown recalls sitting in those large lecture classes that everyone is required to take.

“When I took those classes, I did terribly in them,” he said. “I like math. I use statistics extensively in my research. But I did terribly in the first college stats class I took because I felt lost amidst the hundreds of students in the room.”  

Today, as a new assistant professor in the Iowa State University School of Education, Brown is working to transform that model.

He aims to improve teaching and learning in lecture classes that enroll more than 100 students — which are gateways to science, technology, and engineering careers. He builds instructional tools as a way to help students build community and seek help when they are struggling academically.

“In large lecture courses, there are potentially fewer opportunities for instructors to provide students feedback,” he said. “Building digital tools that provide students feedback is one way we can overcome the lack of intimacy in large lecture courses, and provide students resources and strategies that help them achieve their objectives.”

Effective use of technology

Brown’s research explores the role of technology in the experiences of undergraduate students. He is hailed for cutting-edge research on digital technology and pedagogy, or method of teaching, and the role that digital technology plays in fostering peer interactions in the classroom.

“Michael is a leading scholar in that area. That really was one of the things that really drew us to him,” said Lorenzo Baber, an associate professor in the School of Education who is the division head for higher education. “We think we know a lot about classroom pedagogy but with a new generation of students coming in at the graduate level, the role of technology is a critical piece.”

Brown analyzes the use of adaptive tutoring systems, online practice problem platforms, web-enabled dashboards, and learning analytics. He looks at what online tools student use, and how it relates to their academic success. He examines situations where students opt for online help versus studying with another student. And he develops new tools and interventions.

“In a large lecture class, digital technology can help us assess what a student is doing,” he said. “Once we have an idea about what students are doing, we can help them develop a strategy for the course. That’s what I’m working on right now — messages that can be delivered in these large classrooms through technology that are effective nudges to help students achieve their goals.”

His research has found that timing matters. He said for students to be receptive to feedback in the form of personalized messages delivered through technology, they need to know enough about their performance to understand that they may need to make a change.

“I think there’s the potential in using these technologies to really meet students where they’re at and to give them lots of information about their performance in the course so they can make adjustments,” he said.

Element of diversity and equity

Brown is a scholar-practitioner, meaning that his scholarship is enhanced by experience in the field.

He worked in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender student services at Vanderbilt University and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. That experience gives his work a dimension of diversity — which aligns with an emphasis in the School of Education’s Division of Higher Education.

“If you read his work, you wouldn’t think there’s an equity component,” Baber said. “But when you think about what he’s trying to do fostering persistence and completion, there’s an element of equity and diversity. That will be great for our students. Those are the things that really drew us to him.”

Brown said some students taking large lecture courses in science, technology, and engineering, and mathematics — including women, international students, students of color, and those who commute — do not have an equal opportunity to make connections with others in the class and participate in study groups.

“If you come in and you know nobody, it’s much harder for you to find a study buddy than if you come in and the seven people sitting next to you all live on your floor,” he said. “The challenge is to understand how the community in these classrooms forms. And then if it forms in ways that limit students’ opportunities, how do we create environments that better serve all students?”

Iowa State alumnus

Brown, who is originally from south Florida, is an Iowa State alumnus who received his master’s degree in student affairs and development in 2007.

“I loved Iowa State when I was here as a student,” he said. “It set me up to be the kind of scholar-practitioner I wanted to be.”

He received his doctorate in higher education from the University of Michigan, where his dissertation focused on understanding student coursework engagement. He’s continuing that line of research with a yearlong study that looks at 3,000 students in four large lecture courses, and how students respond to personalized feedback through an online academic coaching system.

Brown joins Iowa State’s Division of Higher Education which includes Baber, Brian Burt, Erin Doran, Jan Friedel, Ann Gansemer-Topf, Linda Serra Hagedorn, Rosemary Perez, Robert Reason, Sarah Rodriguez, Dian Squire, and Marlene Strathe.