Pros and Cons of Interactive Classes

A number of people have commented on the big New York Times article about the new intro physics classes at MIT:

At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

It sounds pretty cool, as it has every other time I’ve heard people present these sort of reforms. The Physics World blog, though, points out something missing from the original article: comments from students.

This is one of the frustrating things about media articles on science and science education. I’m less bothered by the occasions when journalists get technical points wrong than I am by cases like this where laziness leads to only one side really being presented. The comments to the NYT piece, which you need to click through to another page to read, include a few comments from students who took the class, and it’s only after reading those that I realized there weren’t any comments from the general student body in the article itself. The only student-perspective quote in the article was from one of the TA’s, which is hardly representative.

Now, that being said, how seriously should the negative comments really be taken? After all, the students who comment on the Times web site likely have at least as much of an axe to grind as the students who liked the course enough to become a TA.

It’s tough to tell from the negative comments themselves whether they’re being made for the right reasons or not. The negative remarks are things that could be legitimate problems, or could be sour grapes.

In particular, it’s not immediately obvious which of several student populations the commenting students are from, which makes a big difference. I could easily believe that the active-learning model could be both more effective pedagogically and also resented by students who are taking the class only because it’s required. The traditional lecture format has many problems from a student perspective, but it also offers the advantage of being easily skippable by students who aren’t interested in the subject itself, but have to take it to meet curricular requirements. A smaller, more active class might rub them the wrong way by forcing them to show up and participate more than they otherwise would have.

The classes we offer in my department tend to fall in the uneasy middle between the traditional lecture and more active modern models. We cap the class size at 18 (and offer a lot of sections), so nobody is sitting in a gigantic lecture hall dozing during physics lectures. Our academic calendar limits the amount of interactive stuff we can do, though, and forces a lot of classes into more of a lecture format. We’ve only got 30 class periods to work with (a semester calendar would have more like 45), so we need to move rapidly to get through everything that we need to cover.

Everything I’ve read suggests that the active models do a much better job of teaching the essential concepts, and in the end, that’s the most important thing, and more important than whether students liked the class format. That doesn’t mean that student opinions can be ignored altogether, though.

Comments

  1. #1 Eph parent
    January 16, 2009

    With intro physics that uses multi-var calculus the students should be properly prepared.

    With that in mind, I’d like your opinion on whether a small lecture-lab-discussion format for such as class, which sounds like what your department provides, is just as good as a very expensive interactive format. As I recall, the cost to MIT was more than $2,000,000 to create their new intro physics series.

  2. #2 Eph parent
    January 16, 2009

    With intro physics that uses multi-var calculus the students should be properly prepared.

    With that in mind, I’d like your opinion on whether a small lecture-lab-discussion format for such a class, which sounds like what your department provides, is just as good as a very expensive interactive format. And, by “just as good” I mean the students are engaged enough to learn the material & prepared for the next course or to major in physics. As I recall, the cost to MIT was more than $2,000,000 to create their new intro physics series.

  3. #3 Karthik
    January 16, 2009

    I think the biggest thing any professor can do to improve a science/math/engineering class, short of going to this interactive model, is to ditch the Powerpoint and move to using the board. It forces a more thoughtful pace and gives students a chance to ask questions in real time without the whole “no, two lines up, not those two lines, the next two lines……” dance.

  4. #4 emily
    January 16, 2009

    Looking at the MIT subject offerings, it looks like there is still an option to take a more traditional, lecture-based version of the course. In fact, you can take a slower-paced version if you need to catch up or you can take a more advanced, in-depth version with more math. Probably the advisors steer students into the TEAL version and students have to express a strong preference for one of the alternatives.

    I can understand the faculty steering students that way, especially when the school has invested so much into the program and they are seeing measurable improvements in passing rate and such.

  5. #5 bcooper
    January 16, 2009

    I could easily believe that the active-learning model could be both more effective pedagogically and also resented by students who are taking the class only because it’s required.

    Having TAed a discussion and lab section for a more interactive course like this, I can say that this is a verrrry common reaction. It goes over pretty well with the best students but these are generally people who would do well anyway.

  6. #6 Ian Durham
    January 16, 2009

    Chad, you should seriously at least read the introductory material to Tom Moore’s Six Ideas That Shaped Physics (http://www.physics.pomona.edu/sixideas/). I follow a slightly modified version of what he espouses.

    Each meeting period with the students is a mix of interactive, peer-centered, and traditional lecturing. We have a clicker system here. Students receive clickers that allow them to semi-anonymously click in on certain answers and I can display or see the results. I use this to help “guide” each session (since the book is read prior to coming to class).

    I used this method for four years in our General Physics I & II course which is the one taken by all the pre-med majors (the physics majors take a different one). During that time I only received maybe half a dozen negative evaluations out of about 120 students (and pre-med majors are notoriously hard to please – I heard a story last year about someone who was denied tenure at another college as a result of the pre-med physics course evals). Note that this is despite the fact that I do not have a curve in my class (i.e. you get what you get).

  7. #7 Erica
    January 16, 2009

    At my undergrad institution, both a traditional and an interactive introductory course were offered, but honors Physics majors were required to take the interactive course. It had a lot of problems, some of which were due to poorly-designed activities and inadequate resources and others of which were due to the shortcomings of the lecturer (who may have understood English fine, but could not speak it in a comprehensible way). But the biggest problem was really that the emphasis was so little on explaining concepts or deriving relations and so much on performing virtual experiments (i.e. on the computer) to discover them. So no matter how much effort you put into the class or how smart you were, there was no opportunity to learn fundamentals, just the opportunity to “discover” F=ma by clicking repeatedly on an animation of a rolling ball.

    I hated this class so much that I wrote a ten-page letter to the dean, complete with surveys and statements from other students, about what I thought was useful (collaborative work, daily quizzes) and what I thought was in need of massive overhaul or elimination (the lack of lecture and emphasis on computers). This accomplished nothing, but it made me feel a bit better.

  8. #8 RF
    January 16, 2009

    TEAL has a very bad reputation among students at MIT, or at least it did when I was freshman 3 years ago. I took the more abstract, mathy version to avoid it. The classical mechanics part was great, but I have to admit I struggled a lot with the concepts when we got to electromagnetism. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d have done better in TEAL, after all.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    January 17, 2009

    Hey, if I could use that article to convince my Dean to buy me a million dollar classroom, I’d go for it. (They paid 2.5 million for two classrooms.) Even more so if I got a bunch of undergrad teaching assistants. Fat chance to either of those!

    I have thought about blogging that article ever since I saw it. Maybe this weekend.

    There was a major logic flaw in the discussion of this switch. They *required* attendance in the new scheme, but not in the old one. Would the passing rate have improved if they gave points for attendance in the old system? Is there a stronger correlation between attendance and passing than between the new system and passing? I personally think that *engagement* is what matters, since it is the one common factor that seems to be present when a new system works well, and absent when a new person takes over the new system and it works badly.

    But passing rates are not what really matters. They need to measure learning six months to a year later, when that knowledge is put to use. Retained knowledge is what matters.

  10. #10 Kaleberg
    January 18, 2009

    Different people have different learning styles. When I went to MIT you could take freshman physics, freshman physics for poets MIT style, freshman physics through vector calculus, freshman physics in hope of creating the new science of biophysics or freshman physics alternative style a la ESG. Me, I learned best in big lectures with a little help in tutorials and study groups. (Hell, I’m still sleeping with a tech coed I met in a biochem study group my freshman year so I can’t say enough good things about study groups). I would have hated a course with compulsory attendance and forced interaction. If I want to punt a lecture or sleep through it, that should be my business as long as I learned the material. Different people need to deal with the MIT fire hydrant in different ways.

    I can imagine some people liking the interactive option. I found that vector calculus gave me all the physical intuition I needed, but some people would have preferred to play with a simulation or do real world experiments. I like reading text books and listening to lectures in big auditoriums. I miss having lecturers in planetariums even more than I like the modern multi-media shows they offer. Give me a good talk on the Christmas star or the constellations you can see from mid-town and keep your light shows. Still, I can imagine someone needing a bit more hand holding and need for personal attention. Just make sure you offer a few alternatives.

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