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Stop lecturing me, in college science (interview with Carl Wieman)

May 21, 2014
Scientific American
As a way to improve science education, GSE professor Carl Wieman proposes that students prepare and learn actively in the classroom through interactions with students and professors. He believes the 'talking textbook' lecture courses don't engage students effectively.
Anna Kuchment

College lecture classes have been around for more than 900 years. Lately, a handful of science and engineering professors have been experimenting with a more innovative way of teaching science, especially at the introductory level. The idea is to have students spend their class time solving problems and engaging in activities that are designed to help them think like scientists instead of listening passively to an expert.

A new paper in the journal PNAS offers some of the most convincing evidence that so-called “active learning” is superior to lectures. Scott Freeman of the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues analyzed data from 225 studies and found that students enrolled in lecture courses were 1.5 times more likely to fail than those enrolled in courses that had elements of active learning. Students enrolled in active learning sections scored about 6 percent higher on examinations than their peers in traditional courses, an increase that could translate to a median course letter grade of a B instead of a B-minus. Those improvements, the authors write, would go a long way toward encouraging more students to persevere in science and math. Of those who enter college planning to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), less than 40 percent graduate with a STEM degree.

Carl Wieman, who earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 and served as associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2010 until 2012, has been a tireless advocate of active learning. As a faculty member of the University of Colorado and, later, as the director of the University of British Columbia’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, he transformed the teaching style of a majority of faculty in a few science departments, helping move them from traditional lectures to a system that more actively engages students. Last year, Wieman accepted a joint appointment at Stanford, where he serves on the faculty of the physics department and the graduate school of education.  He’s written a commentary on Freeman’s paper that is scheduled to appear in PNAS this week. Below is a condensed and edited version of an interview we had over the weekend.

What is your reaction to the PNAS paper?

It makes a very compelling argument that if you’re going to college and you’re going to a whole bunch of lecture classes that require you to sit there and listen passively, you’re getting a bad education. By teaching that way, universities are just providing an inferior education, and the public ought to know that. The institutions really ought to be taking these results seriously.

How, ideally, should an undergraduate science course be structured?

At the most general level, the classroom is really the best opportunity for students to be interacting with the professor, who’s the expert in the subject, and their fellow students. How do you use that time and that interaction to get the most effective learning?

What we know about learning from cognitive psychology is that people learn by practicing, with feedback to tell them what they’re doing right and wrong and how to get better. In this case, that means they need to practice thinking like a scientist in the field. They should do background reading that gives basic information before class and then in class they’re working through carefully designed problems that give them practice at a particular sort of scientific thinking, whether it’s how physicists think about forces in motion or biologists think about cells and how they repair themselves, and so on. This way, they get much more targeted feedback from the instructor, who can realize they’re confused about some basic point and can guide them much more directly.  In this way, students spend all of their time in class being very actively involved, using their brains strenuously. They would also have homework problems that build on what they’ve done in class so they can practice more extensively.

Read the full story in Scientific American.

Carl Wieman is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Read an article featuring him and GSE professor Paulo Blikstein on improving science education by using hands-on work and real-world examples in the New York Times.

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