I am honored to be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs while she is away on vacation. I thought I’d warm up with the good old topic of physics instruction.
Last year M.I.T. abandoned its introductory physics lectures and turned to a workshop approach with “personal response clickers.” The teacher would give a short presentation and throw out multiple-choice questions, which the students would answer with their clickers. They would then work on problems during class, as the teacher circulated to help them.
The NYT article heralded this change, mentioning only in passing that some students had petitioned against it. The article quoted only those professors who thought it was a great idea.
But even the project’s pioneer, Professor Eric Mazur, apparently admits that this is largely for unmotivated students.
“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.
If you look at the comments to the article, you find multiple claims that this has resulted in—surprise!—dumbing down of physics.
One M.I.T. student responds:
Don’t be fooled by the professors’ and administration’s rave reviews. The professors love it because they don’t need to prepare a solid 50-minute lecture (and therefore they can devote more time to their research), the administration loves it because they can advertise it in their recruiting letters; the people who get left in the lurch are the students, who would much rather go back to the old way of doing things (this aspect, of course, the article glosses over while gushing forth about this supposedly “new” manner of teaching).
Another M.I.T. student comments:
The atmosphere of the classroom makes it much harder to focus than that of a traditional lecture hall. While lauding the shiny new style of the “round table with computers” system, the article fails to mention that since the professor cannot help but be in only 1 point at any time, 50% of the students are constantly twisted in their seats, trying to operate computers, take notes, and punching clickers while maintaining attention on the instructor.
And another: “My opinion is that this new and expensive teaching method will tend to slow down the more gifted.”
I am currently auditing a physics class (not at M.I.T.). I thought it would be a lecture course, and I relished the thought. As it turns out, this course uses clickers, group work, and all. The professor–who is excellent–gives brief presentations and then throws out problems for students to answer in groups. They then choose one of the four options with their clickers.
Now, I have not taken physics since high school, so I am a bit rusty, certainly not among the more gifted. That said, I like getting absorbed in a lecture, and I like pondering problems on my own. I don’t understand this push to fill classes with group buzz, not to mention multiple-choice problems and clickers. I am enjoying the course–I just wish there were more lecture!
More and more colleges and universities are adopting this workshop/clicker approach and abandoning what they have done before. Yet the more advanced courses, the ones specifically for physics majors, use a lecture approach. Why? Is it that they expect physics majors to work independently and persevere with difficult problems?
Current and former physics students, physics professors, science teachers, and others, what do you think? Do you like this “new” approach to physics instruction? Do you find that it enhances or limits learning? And what do you think of those clickers?
Update (sort of): See Kitchen Table Math for a thoughtful, skeptical take on this matter.
Correction: I mistakenly gave the name of the Harvard professor as Kurt Mazur. The name is Eric Mazur.