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Professor Michael Roche lectures to a classroom of students.

Room 117 in Patterson Hall at the University of South Dakota seats 170 students and is one of the largest lecture rooms on campus. On a cold Friday afternoon in late January, almost 100 undergraduates are in Professor Michael Roche’s Introduction to Criminal Justice class, yet all the seats are empty. Individuals instead stand along the outer walls of the room, shoulder to shoulder with others who have chosen one of two sides in a hypothetical question Roche has just posed.

“Imagine a group of 100 people. We know 99 out of the 100 are vicious killers,” Roche told the students a minute earlier. “One among them is not guilty, but that person’s identity is unknown. All 100 of them say, ‘I’m innocent.’ How many of you say that we need 100 separate jury trials to find the innocent person? How many think we can’t afford to do that? And some of the guilty ones are going to get acquitted. They are bad asses and they’re coming out amongst us!”

Along the north wall of Room 117, about 70 percent of the class stands at the ready. They know their professor will require them to back up their vote for 100 jury trials with strong arguments. A smaller group of students lines the south wall, preparing the basis for their reasons to oppose the trials. None of the students anticipated this exact scenario as they entered class today to discuss the topic of judicial discretion, but they certainly knew to do the required reading, attend to Roche’s discussions as soon as they entered the lecture hall, and anticipate that their professor will ask them to state their name before they speak so that he’ll know each member of his huge class before the end of the semester.

Ashlyn, Nash and Madison are among the students who make the case for their stance on the subject. Ashlyn: “Every American citizen has a right to a trial.” Nash: “If I were that one innocent person, I would want to make my case.” Madison: “Do we want to risk murderers going back on the street?” Roche thanks them for their comments, probes if he wants clarification, and sometimes paraphrases their responses. To ensure all get to have a say, he lets the eager outgoing individual talk, but also draws out the shy student shielding himself behind a classmate. No one is daydreaming or daring to glance at their phone.

In a lecture class where a student might expect to dutifully take notes from a PowerPoint presentation, Roche gets students out of their seats and on their toes, in both the literal and figurative sense. Cradling a well-worn and annotated textbook, the veteran teacher with more than four decades in front of USD students marches by the whiteboard and through the middle ofthe classroom. Visual aids from his years of travel and service as a prison instructor show up periodically. But it’s the give-and-take between teacher and students and the poking and prodding of ideas and concepts that best characterize a Mike Roche criminal justice lecture.

In all of the USD College of Arts & Sciences’ 27 majors, each student will sit (and perhaps stand) through hundreds of hours of lectures in addition to labs, discussions, small-group seminars, internships and research projects. Those who attended college before the birth of PowerPoint and Prezi will recall the largely monochrome visuals presented using an overhead projector. All college graduates remember the efforts to take coherent notes that capture not only the facts, but the essence, of the information presented. The college lecture has its detractors and its champions, but this pedagogical method lives on at nearly every institution of higher education, including USD. Which approach wins out—the “sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side?” Or perhaps a bit of both?

Never a PowerPoint

Roche holds a Juris Doctor from the USD School of Law (1974). He earned a Master of Laws (1976) and Doctor of Juridical Science (1981) from the University of Virginia School of Law. He began teaching in the USD Department of Criminal Justice in 1974 and, while classroom technology may have changed over his tenure at USD, Roche’s methods in his lectures remain resolutely old-school.

Sydnee Pottebaum, a criminal justice minor and political science and history major from Brandon, South Dakota, has taken three classes from “Roche” (as he’s called by most of his students) in her first two years at USD and has never once seen him use a computer presentation during a lecture. She doesn’t miss the projection screen. “You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into Roche’s classroom,” she said. Completing the required reading before class is mandatory, Pottebaum said, adding, “That’s basically our PowerPoint.” In class, students watch and listen as Roche paces in front of or through a crowded classroom, at times stopping short to query an unsuspecting student on a concept or a definition. He will linger for a few seconds if the student can’t readily answer, moving on to an eager student with a raised hand. You sense the individual caught off guard will read and take notes more carefully in the future.

“Moving around the lantern” is another concept familiar to everyone who has studied under Roche. He encourages students to consider and attempt to understand all sides of an issue—just as a group sitting around a lantern would only see their perspective of the lamp unless they moved around and contemplated other views.

“He always says that if your point of view stays the same, you’re not learning,” Pottebaum said. “In every class I’ve taken with him, he reminds us to look around the lantern.”

Far from an anonymous name on a course roster, Roche’s students feel inspired and challenged. “He always kept us engaged,” Pottebaum said.

"He wasn’t just lecturing at us. He expected so much from us and he wanted to make us think like a professional in the field. He wanted us not only to know the material but be able to do the work of a lawyer or criminal justice professional." - Sydnee Pottebaum, student

Closing in on a half century of teaching at USD, Roche has lectured before thousands of Coyote students and has received numerous awards for his teaching. 

Active Learning in the Large Classroom

Sara Lampert, Ph.D., associate professor of history and coordinator of the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, teaches two United States History survey courses at USD, each with enrollments that can reach up to 70 students. When she joined the history department faculty seven years ago, Lampert first accessed the resources at the USD Center for Teaching and Learning, which collaborates with faculty members to promote effective teaching at USD. Active, collaborative and team-based learning techniques augment the content she delivers through lectures that are always accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation.

“In the last few years, I’ve interspersed more activities through the lecture to get students to apply and engage with the material I’m presenting,” Lampert said. “These also work as an assessment of what they’re actually understanding.”

Sara Lampert displays an historical image at the start of each class and asks students to examine and contextualize.
Sara Lampert displays an historical image at the start of each class and asks students to examine and contextualize.

One technique includes presenting a slide of questions midway through a lecture that requires students to synthesize the lecture content with information from the course textbook. “If I’m talking about religion and government in Puritan colonies,

I might ask them to explain how Puritans thought about that relationship and how that compared with other colonizer groups,” she said. “They can’t answer those questions without connecting what we were talking about with what they are reading in their textbook.”

Alternatively, she may break her students into smaller groups, present them with primary source documents and ask them to compile a shared Google Doc with their analyses and insights. “The kind of analysis that they will do in that format is really, really incredible,” she said. “And I know I’m getting engagement from students who are not going to raise their hand in class or would freeze if I called on them.”

These exercises emphasize that history is not just an authoritative linear narrative, but is built on argument and interpretation, Lampert said.

"I am really trying to figure out how to convince an 18-year-old in a room full of 40 strangers to take a risk and talk with me and each other about history,” she said. “I think there’s a lot we can do in terms of how we create certain environments for discussion and engagement. A lecture environment doesn’t necessarily facilitate that, but there are ways we can do that. And my goal is to figure that out over the next 20 years." - Sara Lampert, Assistant Professor of History

Noah Youngberg, a history major from Sioux City, Iowa, has taken both United States History survey classes with Lampert. “It’s obvious she puts a lot of effort into her lectures and has everything prepared and planned out,” he said.

He particularly appreciated Lampert’s technique of starting each lecture by presenting the class with an historical image. “She would ask us to look at it and think about what it means and how it relates to the topic,” Youngberg said. “She wouldn’t give us any details; we had to look at it and think about what we know to try to decipher what the image means and why she is showing it to us. I liked that. Maybe I’ll use that when I’m a history teacher with my own classroom.”

The Science Lecture

“It’s my style to not lecture,” said Jacob Kerby, Ph.D., professor of biology. So how does that work when he stands in front of more than 200 science majors in a General Biology class, where students learn the foundational concepts for their future classes? “I’m a technology geek, and that helps out a lot,” he said.

With so much to learn in a biology survey course, Kerby started creating extra 15-minute lectures for students to watch outside of class. “I just talk in front of my computer screen and give some of my hardest content on these short videos,” he said. “Say they’re learning about population growth and it’s an exponential curve and there are all kinds of Greek letters. It’s hard to copy that down and really understand it while the professor is showing a PowerPoint slide. With a video you can pause it, write it all down, think about it and then hit play and watch it again.”

Jacob Kerby and two students prepare a meal as part of his Science of Good Cooking class.
In-class lectures inform out of class experiences. In Jacob Kerby's Science of Good Cooking class, students prepared meals and explained the science behind their cuisine.

To gauge whether the students understand the content, Kerby carves some class time for student groups of three or four to take a quiz on their phone or laptop using a program that encourages student interaction and gives immediate feedback. He gets a sense of where students are struggling, and students learn from their peers as they work through the questions. His “tech geek” side also appreciates interactive online modules produced by textbook companies such as Pearson.

Another of Kerby’s teaching techniques for the large biology lecture relies on the millennia-old approach of storytelling. “People learn through stories,” he said. “I’ll trick students into learning concepts of ecology by talking about walking through Costa Rican jungles. They get engaged in the story and think I’m just diverging from the topic.”

Even while he strives to include as much content as possible in his introductory biology courses, Kerby said he wants students to understand memorization is not the same as knowledge.

"We're in a new society where information is actually cheap,” he said. “In all of my lecture courses I try to teach students how to recognize good information versus how to memorize it." - Jacob Kerby, Professor of Biology

There is also an element of entertainment in any lecture, said Kerby. He employs humor as a tactic. “I rehearse my jokes. And I use the same stupid jokes year after year.” Engaging lectures don’t need to be funny, he added. “Look at TED Talks, for instance; there are all sorts of people doing all sorts of presentations. They just let their own personality shine through.”

Whatever the approach, large lecture classes share the same goal as more intimate seminar classes—to help individuals learn to think, process and problem solve, preparing them for life as well as a career. “I want to teach you how to be successful in your future job. And your future job never entails your boss giving you a book, saying, ‘Memorize this, and you’ll get paid on how much you get right on this test.’” Kerby said. “I wish there was a job like that because I’d be really good at it.”