In my biology class this semester, I'm getting the chance to experience some new teaching methods that I'd never heard of before. In fact, the professor spent the first class mostly just talking about his methods (borrowed from a few other professors, and backed up with data showing that they can more than double the rate of information retained), so I've got a pretty good idea of how they work. First, we're all expected to read the text before the class in which we discuss it, and a big part of our grade is how well we engage with and respond to the text. And he knows if we're doing that because the text is a free document on a tool out of MIT called NB, which allows us to annotate the chapter with threaded comments, which can be seen by other members of our group -- groups just being small numbers of students, arbitrarily chunked so that two or three students wouldn't end up dominating the discussion for the entire class.
When we get to class, the professor uses the lecture time to address the things that we didn't understand in the text, concentrating the utility of lecture time immensely. That way, students struggling with particular issues get the personal response they need -- he focuses more on helping us understand why wrong answers are wrong than what the right answer is, so lingering ambiguities and concerns are more easily squashed.
To guide that discussion, we all get little garage door style remote controls when we come to class, with buttons for 10 options on them, and regularly throughout the discussion, he throws up multiple choice questions on the projector and we all, secretly, vote the answers we think are correct. (And, instead of just telling us which one was right, as I said earlier we discuss each answer and try to approach an understanding of what isn't true about it.)
For some of the questions, he actually uses comments and questions off the annotations we all put on the text, making the attention to our individual understandings and errors that much more specific.
Other cool things include the fact that he likes Wikipedia as a casual reference, links to TED talks in the text (The text has hyperlinks!) and extremely strongly implied that we could return the 200 dollar textbook that gets assigned for his course.
I have no idea what the Lab sections of this class are going to be like -- the first one is on Wednesday -- but I suspect that they, too, will have some improvements over what I've come to expect from college STEM courses: a vaguely obstructionist refusal to make it easy for people not already talented or studied in a field to learn things.
There's also a lot of discussion of the philosophy of science, and while we can't really dwell on that (it not being a philosophy course, it would probably boil down to a long conversation between me, the professor, and one or two other students while everyone else stares on annoyed that we keep using words they don't have any experience with) it does add another element of fun to the class.