Friday, May 13, 2011

A Better Way To Teach Physics?

Tell someone that you're an 'astrophysicist' and the reaction that I typically get is "physics?! You must be so smart to spend your life studying that subject. I hated physics in school.” Of course, momentary ego-boost aside, what you're really being told is that these otherwise intelligent folks had a frustrating, intimidating experience with a subject I love. So how best to teach physics?

Usually faculty teach physics the way they were taught. Hey, if it was good enough for them, it's good enough for you too! But this traditional "teaching-by-telling" or "sage-at-the-stage" approach just doesn't work! Over the past several years, much research has been done to determine how students learn and how best to teach them (much of it lead by physicists!). The model that has emerged is one in which students are engaged and are active participants in the classroom rather than passive note-takers. One popular method used here at JMU and other institutions is via "clickers" (remote polling devices) to gauge student understanding and to identify misconceptions immediately. The idea is to confront students head-on with their misconceptions so that you can replace the incorrect model they have in their mind with the correct one. Many studies have shown this "intense engagement" to better performance as measured on tests, and one would hope, better understanding. However, as you might imagine, there are many questions that arise in determining whether this active method is truly better than the lecture method.

In a research article published in today's Science, a group of investigators purport to provide a "clean comparison" between the active, student-centered approach versus the traditional, teacher-led approach. The research was conducted by a team at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is led by physics Nobelist Carl Wieman. Wieman has devoted the past decade to improving undergraduate science instruction, using methods that draw upon the latest research in cognitive science, neuroscience, and learning theory. What they did was take two large first-year introductory engineering physics classes (one class had 267 students while the other had 271) and teach one section using this "deliberative practice" approach (really just means clickers plus group tasks) while the other section was taught by a "motivated faculty member with high student evaluations" using the standard lecture format. Before the experiment, the instructors for both sections agreed to cover the same unit on electromagnetic waves and on what learning objectives would be covered. A typical 50-min class in the experimental section consisted of a clicker question, instructor feedback, another clicker question, more feedback from the instructor but students can then discuss and change their vote. This was followed by a group task with a demonstration and another clicker question. After 1 week (3 1-hour classes), both sections were given the same 12-question multiple choice test. The students in the "active" section scored more than twice as well as those in the "passive" control section. Just as importantly, 90% of the respondents in the "active" classroom agreed with the statement "I really enjoyed the interactive teaching techniques during the three lectures on E&M waves". So how physics is taught does make a difference!

This is an interesting result and clearly more work is left to be done! To read more about this work, check out this article from Science Now which summarizes the work and its impact. The New York Times presents a more critical review of the work.