Using Science to Teach Science

I’ve recently absorbed American RadioWorks feature on “Tomorrow’s College“. Especially interesting was the program “Don’t Lecture Me, where the story of some physicists gathered data about the learning and understand of their students, only to discover that the traditional lecture model of a knowledgeable expert disseminating information to a passive audience is ineffective.

Research conducted over the past few decades shows it’s impossible for students to take in and process all the information presented during a typical lecture, and yet this is one of the primary ways college students are taught, particularly in introductory courses.

[Joe] Redish [,a professor of physics at the University of Maryland,] wanted to reach the students who weren’t teaching themselves. So he began trying to better understand how people learn.

There is a Problem with Lecturing:

Even though, Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist, made his lectures fun and full of attention grabbing demos which regularly recieved great evaluations from students, they still didn’t improve on a conceptual test of physics principles.

David Hestenes, a physics professor at Arizona State, wrote a series of articles developed a conceptual test of physics, and observes: “Students have to be active in developing their knowledge, They can’t passively assimilate it. If you look at what’s happening in the introductory classes, even at the best schools, the classes only seem to be really working for about 10 percent of the students, and I think all the evidence indicates that these 10 percent are the 10 percent of students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own.”

There’s even a few techniques which can be used. Eric Mazur, likes to quiz the students with conceptual questions (using clickers to get audience answers on the board) and then lets them discuss it among themselves: a process called peer instruction. During discussion, any student who has the right answer, is more likely to convince others, than vice versa. Not only that, but that student is also more likely to convince other students than the professor, because she can relate more closely to the conceptual difficulties (having only just learned the concept) than the professor, who has so internalized the idea that he cannot understand the conceptual challenges.

That’s the irony of becoming an expert in your field, Mazur says. “It becomes not easier to teach, it becomes harder to teach because you’re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.

To make sure his students are prepared, Mazur has set up a web-based monitoring system where everyone has to submit answers to questions about the reading prior to coming to class. The last question asks students to tell Mazur what confused them. He uses their answers to prepare a set of multiple-choice questions he uses during class.

Mazur begins class by giving a brief explanation of a concept he wants students to understand. Then he asks one of the multiple-choice questions. Students get a minute to think about the question on their own and then answer it using a mobile device that sends their answers to Mazur’s laptop.

Next, he asks the students to turn to the person sitting next to them and talk about the question. The class typically erupts in a cacophony of voices, as it did that first time he told students to talk to each other because he couldn’t figure out what else to do.

Once the students have discussed the question for a few minutes, Mazur instructs them to answer the question again.

The uptake has been slow among college’s: “Your research matters,” Redish says. “Your teaching you can get by with.” This occurs for two reasons: 1. The risk of being denied tenure, because “good teaching comes by neglecting research”. 2. Professors are not given any formal assistance to prepare classes, nor is there a requirement on teaching ability; So most mimic the system they grew up with, and become traditional lecturers.

“It’s kind of ironic that we as professors don’t have any type of training in any way, shape or form,” says Andy Petzold. “It’s the only teaching degree that you don’t need to go through any actual training in teaching to do.”

The University of Minnesota Rochester has taken these ideas to radical new lengths. No lecture halls, no frats, not library (everything is online), campus is actually the top two floors of a mall, all classroom furniture has wheels.

To see this philosophy in action, I visit a biology class. It starts with an assignment. The students have to write a multiple choice question based on the material they’ve been learning.

“You know you understand something when you can teach somebody else,” says the professor, Kesley Metzger. “So if a student can’t write a question, then it gives them an idea that they don’t fully understand the material.”

It’s not that they’re expected to understand everything they’ve read, [says Metzger], “but we expect them to have looked over the material so that when they come to class we can use that time not just to introduce the terminology but to actually engage at a deeper level so that they can explore what those things mean [and] they can think critically about ideas.”

The fact that people learn better when they’re actively engaged is one of the central findings of cognitive research conducted over the past few decades. Another finding, one that may seem obvious, is that people learn when they’re motivated to learn.

[Lehmkuhle, Chancellor at UMR,] thinks colleges need to start thinking about education not as the pursuit of knowledge in distinct disciplines, but as the acquisition of skills necessary to succeed in a world where knowledge is constantly changing. “You really have to teach them how to learn.”