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Outstanding teacher uses multimedia to help students learn

It's 8 a.m. as students hurry to find seats in the large lecture hall. Despite the early morning hour, the room is packed.

Suddenly, with the click of a mouse, the darkened room explodes with color and sound. Images and text simultaneously appear on a large screen at the front of the room and on six large monitors. All 300 students are alert and ready for David Miller's introductory psychology course taught in multimedia format.

Miller, a psychology professor, doesn't believe in traditional lectures. Instead he offers students his own particular brand of educational wizardry - a multimedia feast that holds their attention and frees them to listen and learn.

And for his teaching excellence and dedication to the profession, Miller, who has an international reputation in comparative psychology and ethology, is one of this year's University Teaching Fellows.

Today, during a lecture covering ethical issues and animal welfare, students hear Paul McCartney singing Looking for Changes: "I saw a cat with a machine in his brain ... The man who fed him said he didn't feel any pain ..." The song text appears on the screens and monitors below a photograph of a cat with electrodes attached to its head.

The students are captivated.

"McCartney is clearly stating where he stands on using animals for research," explains Miller as he walks around the room. Meanwhile, students jot down notes in a booklet that Miller has designed - a smaller version of what is projected on the screen and monitors.

Another day, the Pillsbury Doughboy or other cartoon characters may be used to illustrate a point or deepen the understanding of a concept. Miller uses humor extensively in his courses, but says, "everything is context-relevant, not just humor for gratuitous sake. It's related to exactly the point I'm trying to make."

Students may hear bird songs when Miller discusses the nervous system, or see a squirrel on water skis during a lecture on learning processes.

Miller, who came to UConn in 1980, says that prior to "real technology" he tried to spice up his lectures with slides and transparencies. "On occasion I would bring in two slide projectors, plus overhead transparencies, and show things sequentially, quickly and in combination with one another," he recalls. "It was all I had at my disposal. Now, with computer technology, the possibilities are endless.

He has converted his large collection of audiovisual resources into a computerized multimedia format, using hundreds of digitized images, video clips and sounds that he integrates with his lectures.

"I've always been visually oriented," Miller says, pointing to a collection of about 3,000 slides he has scanned into his computer. Add to that about 300 movies and 150 digitized sounds. Together, they represent about 2,100 hours of work.

Miller enjoys the creative process of teaching with multimedia. "I'm thinking, 'Here's the concept, here's what I want to teach. Here's what I want the students to learn. What are the various ways that I can put it together to make it more learnable?' - putting myself in the place of the student who has never heard this principle before."

At first, Miller created a self-paced non-lecture version of his animal behavior course, where students could retrieve all the information from a computer workstation.

Now, he teaches two classes in multimedia format; an introductory psychology course and a course in animal behavior.

"I provide my students with all the written material, so they don't have to compulsively write everything they see coming across the screen," Miller explains. He stresses, however, that note taking is important and that exam questions come from the lectures.

Prepared manuals work well for the students. "It gives us more of a chance to get a grasp of the concept instead of worrying about getting everything down that he says," says freshman Jennifer Richard.

Miller says it's important "to get students excited and interested in the topic rather than have them necessarily be exposed to X amount of material." He believes in "covering things at a pace that is good for the students, where they can be free to ask as many questions as they like.

"I like getting students excited about the things that excite me, while remaining true to the general spirit of the course content," he says.

James Steinberg, a junior who has taken Miller's courses, says "His classes are very exciting. He's a dynamic teacher."

Miller spends a lot of time preparing for class. "He works and reworks material with which he is already familiar to energize old concepts with fresh perspective," says Ronald Growney, head of the psychology department. "But most importantly, he prepares lecture content so it will connect with the lives and interests of his students."

And students say the multimedia format helps them remember the material. Calvin Brodersen, a junior, says, "I felt when I was studying, I could remember what came up on the screen." It was easy to remember the pictures and video clips, he says.

Students have responded to Miller with consistently high teaching ratings and special recognition for his teaching. He was elected "Professor of the Semester," was nominated for "Best Professor," and received an "Outstanding Educator Award." He also received a National Psi Chi/Florence L. Denmark Award for outstanding contributions to Psi Chi and psychology (Psi Chi is the national psychology honors society.)

Although Miller encourages others to use technology in teaching, he says, "Teaching with multimedia isn't for everyone." He advises those who are interested to ask how they can use technology to better illustrate a point, then try out various ways to accomplish the goal. "Put yourself in the place of the student and settle on the technological solution you think will work best."

Sherry Fisher

This article is the first in a monthly series featuring outstanding educators at UConn.