My Classroom Is Empty: Is That a Problem?

By Kamran M. Mirza

I am no stranger to disseminating information to a group of individuals junior to me.  As a resident and fellow, I have taught many medical students in a classroom setting.  As I think back to these sessions now, I find that they were all in a setting where the student’s presence was mandatory; a review session, a laboratory etc. Nevertheless, my love for teaching grew in those sessions.  My passion for novel pedagogical approaches to pathology education led me to seek a faculty position.  I felt that there was so much I could try and achieve.  I was very excited to become pathology faculty.  What a great honor.  I couldn’t wait to meet my students.

Last fall, as I walked in to my first lecture, I found a half-empty classroom. Rows upon rows of…. no one.  Who will be the beneficiaries of my innovative theoretical pedagogy?  This was even more unusual since the lecture in question is one of the first three lectures of the M2 curriculum, typically scheduled for the first day! In the few years I have been teaching this course, I always found the entire class showing up for Day 1.

But this year, there were only a handful of students in the class. “Are we waiting for more people?”  I asked a girl in the third row who glanced in my direction, hoping half the class was still busy in a previously scheduled session somewhere else.  But to my dismay, we weren’t waiting for anyone else. I still decided to delay by a few more minutes.  The door opened.  Two students walked in.  I was overjoyed. This happiness was very short-lived however; the students had walked in to the wrong lecture hall and left.

Three students in the first row; attentive and with-it.  Several more in the first 10 rows, some obviously Facebooking and then a handful wayyyyyy in the back.  I must admit, it distracted me.  I have always been a strong proponent of adapting to new technology and making it easier for students to get information in whatever form they choose.  I was continuously aware of the recording of my voice, which most of the absentees would probably listen to at 1.5X speed an hour later.  While I am not theoretically opposed to this notion at all, I found myself longing for the visual response from students that helps me adapt my teaching.  Was I becoming out of touch? Gasp –old?

Students often say that one size doesn’t fit all – everyone learns differently.  I completely agree. So, it’s understandable.  Lecture halls aren’t for everyone.  But, if everyone learns differently, and we make accommodations for this, do teachers teach differently?  Do some perform better in an online Skype lecture, while others do better teaching face to face?  And if so, do we make accommodations for this?  Should we?

I have had the privilege of teaching three M2 classes thus far.  While I cannot say that I know every single one of my students by name, I assure you that the fabric of each class has been unique.  I have found that most students have similar traits when dealt with individually, but together, the dynamic that each class brings to the table has been different.  I have found myself connecting more with some classes, and less with others.  Everyone does teach differently.  I have found I teach best when faced with my student.  It animates me, inspires me, energizes me and I thoroughly enjoy it.  My lectures proceed differently; in real-time, based on varying cues from students’ body language, demeanor, the number of yawns in the classroom etc.

I get it.  We have become used to a technological barrier between us and the outside world.  I don’t see my tax agent when filing my annual return (it’s documents over e-mail).  I didn’t meet my bank’s mortgage specialist when I was buying a house, despite corresponding electronically for months.  I have never met my insurance agent, but the agency sends me birthday cards every year. So, is it OK to never actually see my teacher?

A friend who also teaches in the M2 classes once told me that he was standing in line in the cafeteria.  When he told the attendant at the counter what he wanted, a student approached him from behind.  Are you Dr. XYZ?  He asked.

“Yes, that is me.”

The student gave him a big grin and said “I recognized your voice from listening to your lectures online.  I almost didn’t recognize it because I am playing the sound double speed.  I never come to class but am here for a mandatory session this afternoon.  Your lectures are great, thank you!”  Now that is something Flexner’s report didn’t cover.  In the pathology world, telepathology is being hailed as the replacement for microscopes, and Twitter discussions are akin to the huddle in the smoking zone.  Is never seeing my students a natural next step in our technological evolution?  Whether we like it, or not, we have to allow our students the wonderful flexibility of learning in the fashion they think best.  But, the question remains, should our teachers be allowed the same?

Kamran M. Mirza, PhD, MD, FCAP, FASCP, is an assistant professor in the departments of pathology & laboratory medicine and medical education at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.  He is an avid user of technological innovation in medical education.  Follow him on Twitter @kmirza

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