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Study Finds Interactive Approach Improves Physics Teaching

While K-12 classes have been trying to move away from lecture-style instruction for decades—using small groups, project learning, and a host of other options—lecturing is still the default for large university-level classes.

Yet a new study published in the May issue of Science suggests that even in classes exceeding 250 students, interactive learning can be more than twice as effective as lecturing.

Researchers at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver—including the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Mr. Wieman, Louis Deslauriers, a physics education research associate, and Ellen Schelew, a physics postdoctoral student—compared two undergraduate physics sections, each with about 270 students.

In the control classroom, first-year physics students learned in a traditional lecture taught by an experienced professor highly rated by previous classes of students. In the second class, students with similar performance and attendance characteristics learned from a teaching assistant.

This second instructor did not lecture at all, but used small-group tasks designed to: "Have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at 'thinking scientifically' in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others," the authors explained.

Attendance improved by 20 percent for the students in the experimental class during the week of the experiment, and engagement (as measured by four observers as well as students' hand-held electronic "clicker" responses) nearly doubled. Moreover, while the interactive class did not cover as much material as the students in the control class, the students taught using the interactive approach were more likely to show up to take the unit test—211 versus only 171 in the control group—and the students in the interactive class had an average score of 74 percent on the unit test, compared to 41 percent for the control group.

While the study focused only on one section of college students, it gives yet more support for educators moving away from lecture-based instruction. As I reported in this story on math anxiety, neurologist and former teacher Judy Willis argues that a more generalized interactive approach, which engages students without singling out specific students, can help math-phobic students participate.

In particular, Ms. Willis argues that instruction which asks students to make predictions and then test them out engages the brain more intensely and contributes to greater long-term memory and learning.

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