That recent study on active learning continues to generate some press, including a new interview with Carl Wieman about why traditional lectures are problematic. Wieman is pretty blunt about his opinions on the subject, which will come as no surprise to people in the AMO physics community…
Anyway, while most of the rest of the academic nation is into final exams and even graduation parties, we still have two more weeks of class after this one, and we’re giving an exam tonight in my intro E&M class. Which means I’m still spending a lot of time thinking about this stuff. Some related material also came up in this week’s Uncertain Dots, when Rhett and I talked about what we want from students coming into intro college physics. In particular, I’m thinking about the bit where Rhett says he’d prefer students who haven’t taken any physics at all, while I would like them to at least have a rough idea of what some of the basic concepts are.
As I tried to say in the hangout, but kind of bungled, I think this is largely due to a difference in the populations we see– I’m at a snooty private liberal arts college in the Northeast, while Rhett is at a public university in the South. The vast majority of the kids I see in class come from privileged backgrounds, and the high school physics classes they’ve had are mostly pretty good. So some of the bigger problems that come from half-understanding previous material don’t come up that often for us. If I were seeing more kids from schools with subpar physics classes, I might also prefer that they not have physics at all.
Of course, on the flip side, it’s important to shake up even the kids with a decent background in physics, because as I’ve said before in talking about our intro curriculum– cited in Rhett’s Matter and Interactions evangelism post– one of the things I like about it is that the approach is just different enough to keep students with a good background on their toes. The traditional curriculum– Halliday and Resnick is the canonical book– looks very much like a high school physics class for the first several weeks, with the occasional addition of some vector symbols. When we taught on that sort of curriculum, I used to watch students with good backgrounds slowly degrade as the class went on. Once they realized they could mostly fall back on what they’d had in high school, they would stop paying attention in class, or stop coming altogether. And when we hit them with genuinely new stuff six or seven weeks in, their study habits had fallen apart to such a degree that they really couldn’t handle it.
Matter and Interactions shakes things up just enough to keep them engaged. The ideas are sort of familiar, but there’s enough of a difference in the language used to talk about them, and the ordering of topics, that students have to pay attention in class and on the homework. Which means that they don’t go to pieces in exactly the same way later in the course. Those students end up having a better experience as a result, and they’re the kind of B+/A- crew that can turn out to be really good if you can get them engaged, but turn into B/B- students when they’re bored.
I forget who sent me the original link, now, but I recently got pointed to a different study from Carl Wieman “The Surprising Impact of Seat Location on Student Performance” (paywalled, but if you Google the title, you can find the PDF pretty easily). This was a study of a large non-majors course, where they randomly assigned students to seats, and tracked their subsequent performance. They found that students initially placed in the back of the large lecture hall did worse in the class, even after they were shifted to seats up front halfway through. I suspect the mechanism here is similar to the traditional-curriculum problem I mentioned– it’s harder to be deeply engaged from the back of a big room, and as a result students’ study habits degrade over the early part of the term, to a point where they can’t really recover later on. It’d be interesting to see a follow-up study where they switched seats front to back more frequently, to see what the decay constant is for student focus. If I’m ever in a position where I’m teaching in a large lecture hall, I’ll definitely try to move people around a bit, for just this reason.
This is also probably a piece of the “active learning” effect– if you force students to do something during class other than just sit and stare, they’re less likely to tune out completely, and more likely to maintain good habits through a longer stretch of the course. It’s also probably worthwhile to switch up the groups for “active learning” discussions on a regular basis, though I’m not very consistent about doing that for a couple of reasons, only one of which is basic laziness. There are limits, of course– the active methods they used weren’t enough to overcome the seat location problem– but I think just shaking up the normal routine is probably a part of the story.
So, anyway, those are some of the things I’m thinking about physics education right at the moment, as the term slooooowly winds down.