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A Better Way to Teach?

Any physics professor who thinks that lecturing to first-year students is the best way to teach them about electromagnetic waves can stop reading this item. For everybody else, however, listen up: A new study shows that students learn much better through an active, iterative process that involves working through their misconceptions with fellow students and getting immediate feedback from the instructor.

The research, appearing online today in Science, was conducted by a team at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, in Canada, led by physics Nobelist Carl Wieman. First at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and now at an eponymous science education initiative at UBC, 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.

In this study, Wieman trained a postdoc, Louis Deslauriers, and a graduate student, Ellen Schelew, in an educational approach, called “deliberate practice,” that asks students to think like scientists and puzzle out problems during class. For 1 week, Deslauriers and Schelew took over one section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors, which met three times for 1 hour. A tenured physics professor continued to teach another large section using the standard lecture format.

The results were dramatic: After the intervention, the students in the deliberate practice section did more than twice as well on a 12-question multiple-choice test of the material as did those in the control section. They were also more engaged—attendance rose by 20% in the experimental section, according to one measure of interest—and a post-study survey found that nearly all said they would have liked the entire 15-week course to have been taught in the more interactive manner.

“It’s almost certainly the case that lectures have been ineffective for centuries. But now we’ve figured out a better way to teach” that makes students an active participant in the process, Wieman says. Cognitive scientists have found that “learning only happens when you have this intense engagement,” he adds. “It seems to be a property of the human brain.”

The “deliberate practice” method begins with the instructor giving students a multiple-choice question on a particular concept, which the students discuss in small groups before answering electronically. Their answers reveal their grasp of (or misconceptions about) the topic, which the instructor deals with in a short class discussion before repeating the process with the next concept.

While previous studies have shown that this student-centered method can be more effective than teacher-led instruction, Wieman says this study attempted to provide “a particularly clean comparison ... to measure exactly what can be learned inside the classroom.” He hopes the study persuades faculty members to stop delivering traditional lectures and “switch over” to a more interactive approach. More than 55 courses at Colorado across several departments now offer that approach, he says, and the same thing is happening gradually at UBC. Deslauriers says that the professor whose students fared worse on the test initially resisted the findings, “but this year, after 30 years of teaching, he’s learning how to transform his course.”

Jere Confrey, an education researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said the value of the study goes beyond the impressive exam results. “It provides evidence of the benefits of increasing student engagement in their own learning,” she says. “It’s not just gathering data that matters but also using it to generate relevant discussion of key questions and issues.” She also notes that “the attendance results remind us of the importance of providing the right opportunities to learn.”