What's with those clickers in physics class?

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.

Diana Senechal

Correction: I mistakenly gave the name of the Harvard professor as Kurt Mazur. The name is Eric Mazur.

Comments

  1. I’ve seen exactly ONE example of a clicker lecture, designed and delivered by an inspired history professor, that used the technology to good advantage. I tried clickers one summer in my (small) statistics classes; they were a bloody nuisance. Most clicker sales pitches, whether by vendors or colleagues, have left me, and my department chairman, distinctly unimpressed. On my campus, students think they’re an unnecessary added expense, and that they’re dopey. (So does our provost.)

    Our history department made clickers work by going all in–they bought the clickers for their students, and have an active program to design “clicker lectures.” Most departments have trouble getting professors to agree upon common textbooks or a lunch menu, let alone taking guidance on writing lectures. Good luck with that.

    On the other hand, I’ve had great success with a gimmick called the Instant Feedback Assessment Technique (scratch-off quizzes). Students complete a quiz, then collaborate on checking–and often reworking–their answers in small groups. It gets students quickly engaged in the material, but it shouldn’t be overdone, no more than once every 5 or 6 lectures. Even better, I didn’t have to change my department’s budget or pedagogic culture to adopt the technique.

    The problem with any of these techno-tricks is that to use them effectively, an instructor must do MORE preparation, not less. I know that with scratch-off quizzes, I spend more time working out meaningful WRONG answers than ever before; getting just the RIGHT answer was too easy.

  2. What is going on at MIT that they are admitting “unmotivated students”?

  3. I think I would hate them, both as a student and as a prof. (I think it’s telling that one critic noted they were more aimed at the “less-motivated” students: once again, the students who want to excel get left behind while they pamper the ones who don’t give much of a damn).

    I don’t know; I’m a talk-and-chalk sort of person, at least in the stats class I teach. I do stop and throw questions out to the class with the idea of “first right answer” (but no points are assigned.

    I will say I get heartily tired of these new technologies being promoted as “the best thing ever” and that any faculty member who chooses not to use them is a dinosaur at best and committing malpractice on his/her students at worst.

    Like any tool, the clickers can be used well by someone who wants to spend the time and effort to gear up for them (and who has the personality to use them); they can also be used very badly, as a crutch or a substitute for real teaching.

  4. I have mixed feelings about clickers. They could be good in some situations, like grades K-6. I think you have to look at exactly what is going on for the whole course. Is it more or less rigorous? Often, new classroom techniques are about someone’s pet idea of teaching. Nowadays, teaching in K-12 is all about group work in class using the teacher as a guide on the side. I’ve noticed that these ideas are filtering their way into college. The goal is to provide more interest and motivation for the student. Group discovery in class is quite appealing for many educators, but I’ve never seen an implementation that ended up providing more rigor or better learning.

    The key seems to be a love of group work in class. When I was in college, we had lots of group and individual work. It was called homework. It did not take away from class time. I can’t imagine that it would be a benefit to students to have our professors spend even less class time introducing and explaining material. A full class lecture was barely enough. Students don’t need more discovery time, especially in forced groups during class. Some of my biggest discoveries happened while doing long, complex homework assignments by myself. I also specifically remember the “discovery” I had when I was directly taught (in a lecture) about line integrals being used to calculate the properties of a closed loop. For good teachers, each lecture should be a discovery.

    The only conclusion one can reach is that this teaching trend is about the conceited pedagogical fascination educators have with process over content and skills. It’s the ruination of K-12. Don’t let the K-16 crowd use it to dumb down college.

  5. I’ve taught math courses with clickers for five years now, and (full disclosure) I’ve written a book on teaching with clickers, one that draws upon interviews I conducted with 50 faculty members in different disciplines, including physics. As you might expect, I have a few thoughts about the questions raised here!

    The first thing I noticed reading this post and its comments was the juxtaposition of the MIT student’s comment that using clicker-facilitated active learning during class means professors don’t have to prepare as much and Mike Anderson’s comment that using the IFAT quizzes he describes took more, not less, preparation time.

    I think Mike’s hit the nail on the head: Figuring out what misconceptions students are likely to have, which is required for coming up with plausible wrong answers to multiple-choice questions, is challenging work. And doing what the MIT physics professors are doing–designing intensive learning experiences that help students resolve misconceptions and build their knowledge–is even more challenging. It requires a great deal of understanding of student learning and motivation.

    Speaking of student motivation, the question was raised above asking which students are benefited by more active classroom learning experiences. I would argue that as teachers, we have a responsibility to try to motivate and teach all our students, not just the ones that are self-motivated or the ones who learn best by listening to a lecture. I think it’s great that Diana enjoys and benefits from a great lecture. Evidence points to the fact that such students are in the minority. Combining lectures with more participatory learning experiences is likely to benefit more students’ learning.

    I’ll also point out that the pedagogy behind Mike’s IFAT quizzes is very similar to the pedagogy behind effective instruction with clickers–getting students to actively engage with problems and to discuss those problems with peers and their instructors, and providing instructors with useful feedback on student learning, feedback that can inform future instruction. As Ricki points out, its the pedagogy that counts more than the technology.

    That being said, clickers provide a few advantages that other technologies don’t. Clickers allow me to hold my students accountable for their class participation since the system tracks individual student responses. However, clickers also provide students with a level of anonymity since their peers can’t see who they responded, making it safer for them to take risks and be wrong. (Asking a question to a class of students and taking the first student response privileges those students who are quicker, more confident, and more experienced. It leaves all the other students out of the loop, unfortunately.) And the instant display of results (in the form of a bar graph) provides the instructor with useful information for making on-the-fly teaching choices and can have an impact on student motivation. If, for instance, students see that most of them answered a question incorrectly, they’re more likely to pay attention to the explanation that follows.

  6. Student of History says:

    In my research on changes in math and science instruction in K-12 in the US, the emphasis has been changing in recent years to the colleges and universities. Hence the regular references to K-16 or even P-20, instead of K-12.

    The push is to change the essence of math and science intro courses to allow the poorly prepared products from high schools to still be able to take the celebrated STEM introductory courses without failing or dropping the courses.

    Individual excellence in math and science is deemphasized, in part, out of an expressed concern that such excellence may not be distributed proportionately within population groups. Apparently academic skills, aptitudes, and interests must now be shown to be equitable or we will shift to group work, problems instead of lecture, and even change the content of what will be considered to be Calculus or Physics.

    The emphasis on equitable outcomes in these courses has been a major focus of the solicitation documents for federal STEM grants for years.

  7. STEM is the new approach for ignoring the problems of math in K-6. STEM is all about motivation as the key ingredient. (Blame the student.) Apparently, all that kids need is to be inspired with real-world, hands-on projects. It doesn’t matter how much you love Project Lead the Way courses if you can’t handle the math classes. You won’t get into a college of engineering. Maybe you can tear an engine apart or tie solar panels to the grid, but if you can’t handle calculus and differential equations, the game is over. In fact, most schools don’t admit to themseles that the game is over by 7th grade in most cases. Kids are put on the math track to nowhere. They end up on (at best) a terminal Algebra II math track. Think of the movie Groundhog Day and replace it with algebra. On top of all of that, the students will even blame themselves.

  8. “But even the project’s pioneer, Professor Kurt Mazur, apparently admits that this is largely for unmotivated students” and “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.”

    Sound like MIT is admitting that a very substantial proportion of their students are pretty unmotivated. So if I’m hiring entry-level engineers, why would I want to look at MIT graduates?

  9. Everything can be misused. I would be exceedingly surprised if Diana Senechal were to take a class billed as a “workshop” approach and have anything good to say–or if she were to find anything beneficial in using technology as a teaching tool.

    Likewise, there are elements who will always rail against methods that aim to ensure the participation of students who might be termed “poorly motivated,” or underachieving in some way.

    These sorts of biases do not contribute to honest exploration of anything with regard to either pedagogy or technology. When I was in college, the latest techological breakthrough was “video sections” of some of the more popular, or more heavily required lecture courses. Essentially this meant that instead of the one on many (sometimes very many) approach of lecturing to an auditorium, the one could be expanded via videotape or live feed to multiple auditoriums around the campus and and multiple times. A bank of underpaid grad students provided face time and such tasks as handing out, collecting and grading assignments and tests. I don’t know that it was better or worse than any other approach to the large lecture–but it left me cold. I prefer classes that allow for plenty of student discussion. That’s my bias.

    Only yesterday, a comment on another post here remarked that physics is not a spectator sport–you have to do the problems. Some can take the lecture and go off and do so. Some can do so without the lecture. But, this ignores the folks who really need the ongoing interaction of both peers and the sage. Twisting and turning to focus attention on the monitor and a roaming prof is really just a mechanical problem–seems like some ingenuity could provide a workable solution. Perhaps this is a physics problem.

    I haven’t yet experienced, or observed, the “clicker” phenomenon (except on Jeopardy), but I did get to sit in on a math class that used one on one computers to allow the teacher to pose problems, review answers in real time and accept questions from students too shy to raise their hand. It appeared to be an excellent tool. Reminded me of a low-tech recommendation for grade school that had kids holding up answers in a vaiety of ways (scribed onto small chalkboards, color cards for multiple choice) to allow across the board (not just the first answerer) participation.

  10. Yet the more advanced courses, the ones specifically for physics majors, use a lecture approach. Why?

    My guess is that a lecture format covers the most material in a given amount of time. Poorly done, the students may learn nothing, but the format can be efficient.

    There is a *LOT* of material to learn in physics (and engineering, and …) and it is difficult for a reputable school to water it down much without it becoming obvious when the kids go off to graduate school.

    So …

    (a) lecture and get the kids out in four years (or five, maybe), or
    (b) go discussion/project based and get them out in 6 years (or seven), or
    (c) go discussion/project based, cover less material and still get them out in four (or five), but they look bad in grad school.

    My guess is that most “good” university math/science/engineering departments will favor (a).

    -Mark Roulo

  11. Back in my day… the response to unmotivated students was to encourage them to find another major or another institution. I wonder if the unmotivated students they want to keep are those who happen to be paying full freight? (Rich non-US kids?)

  12. My son’s high school (a private institution with a strong reputation) uses a similar approach (not with the clickers, since there are only 14-18 students, but the general approach is the same). He hates it, for much the same reasons cited in this article – kids who quickly latch on to concepts and are ready to move on must wait for the rest of their group to catch up. When they do, usually the next application/problem presented is only a very small step up. He learned very little “real” physics (I know he couldn’t possibly take the SAT subject test, for example). In fact, he hated it so much that this year he’s not taking science in school at all but will make it up in summer school, just so that he doesn’t have to deal with the nonsense. His school, however, is holding workshops on the approach and getting other schools to sign on.

    Like every other teaching approach, it’s great for some students and not-so-great for others. What I object to most is the suggestion that every teacher at the school has to do it the same way. So much for true “student-centered” teaching.

  13. I wonder if perhaps “motivation” is not the barrier.

  14. In response to comments above from Student of History and Cris, many instructors who are trying to enhance the learning of all students (not just the most motivated or those with the strongest backgrounds) are doing so in an effort to widen the pipeline of students pursing math, science, and engineering.

    It’s not (necessarily) about responding to some kind of distribution of excellence or even about the money. It’s about creating educational experiences that lead more students to persist in their students in math, science, and engineering fields so that we’ll have more graduates of those fields ready for the workforce and for graduate school.

    If we limit those fields to those students who just happen to learn best via lectures and on their own, we’re cutting out a lot of students who might excel in those fields if given the chance to participate in other forms of educational experiences.

    I’m glad that SteveH got to experience learning discoveries during lectures and while working on long homework problems. I would caution, however, against using an N of 1 in one’s arguments here. I can’t really use my own experience learning, for instance, calculus as a high school student in a very small Advanced Placement course to help me teach my own calculus students. I really liked calculus back then and it came very readily to me. Many of my calculus students aren’t (initially) fond of the subject and find it very difficult.

    If I just taught to the students who are like the student I was, well, I don’t even have any of those when I’m teaching freshman calculus. Those students all took calculus in high school and have moved on to other courses. My personal experiences learning the subject aren’t that helpful with the students I have. I’m better off understanding how my current students learn and responding to them appropriately.

  15. Why can’t we get away from the one-size-fits-all model? Large dstricts could offer k-12 schools with different educational philosophies and different approaches. Not only are not all kids the same, not all kids in the same family are the same. Let families choose the school that fits their kid best. In college, different sections could use different approaches. Derek, you seem to be willing to enhance opportunities for the kids who might struggle in lectures, but why can’t the” most motivated with the strongest backgrounds” have enhanced opportunities, too? One of my kids (briefly, thank Heaven) attended a high school that used block scheduling. Even in his honors sections, many of the kids couldn’t handle lecture format for the whole time, so that only half of the year’s material was presented. It was a large enough school to have offered a couple of lecture sessions with accelerated pacing for those kids who wanted that option.

  16. “So …

    (a) lecture and get the kids out in four years (or five, maybe), or
    (b) go discussion/project based and get them out in 6 years (or seven), or
    (c) go discussion/project based, cover less material and still get them out in four (or five), but they look bad in grad school.”

    I tend to favor (a) because by and large, I am pretty good at lecture (and my evaluations bear that out). I’ve also had students from other, allied, departments who take some of my classes come to me and talk about how in their major department, so many of the classes have gone “discussion” and apparently the faculty took the lazy way out – one guy said to me, candidly, “I’m not learning s*** in what is supposed to be an important majors class for me; ‘discussion’ is a joke, people just sit around and talk sports or about how drunk they got the night before.”

    I have seen discussion done well but I think it takes someone more of a “superstar” than me to lead it; my attempts at getting discussions to work have been disappointing.

    Just as one-size-fits-all can be bad for students, mandating one-size-fits-all (or “one size is best”) teaching approaches can be bad for teachers. Why force someone to do something they’re bad at and don’t enjoy, just because some people believe it’s more “modern” or “engaging”?

  17. I always like the way that Mark Roulo boils things down to the basics. There is a time factor involved. There is a goal and not just a process.

  18. Derek,

    Skipping motivation, do you find “group lab” exercises to be effective for all students? In my experience, everybody wants to complete the assignment ASAP so they can go do something else. The person who best understands the experiment or the equipment gets chosen to run the experiment, the second most knowledgeable is chosen to write it up, and the others watch. While this will maximize the grade for the group, those who didn’t know what was going on typically still don’t after the write-up is turned in.

  19. @mof4: I think it’s challenging to lead a class with some students at the upper end of things, a big bunch in the middle, and a few at the lower end of things. One-size-fits-all certainly won’t address all those students. More active, discussion-based approaches can, however, with a little creativity. For instance, during small-group discussion, I’ll circulate among the students both to get a sense of where they stand with the task and to push them a little to go further with it.

    This gives me a chance to spend a little time with the students who are ahead of the game and ask them some additional questions designed to help them make connections we might not have time to address with the large group. It also gives me a chance to spend a little time with the students lagging behind and ask them questions designed to help them catch up.

    Students at both ends of the distribution also benefit from office hours, where I can work with them one-on-one in ways that are appropriate to their motivation and skills. I also like to give my students some freedom to choose topics for their end-of-semester projects, which provides another opportunity for the “ahead of the game” students to push themselves (with my assistance).

    @Cris: As for group labs, I gather that there’s a fundamental difference between group work in the lab setting and group work in the classroom. (I don’t teach science labs, so I’m going off of what I’ve heard science instructors say on this topic.) In the lab setting, when the students finish the lab, they can leave in most cases. Since labs are typically pretty long (2-3 hours), this serves as a strong incentive to finish the lab quickly, which in turns motivates students to tackle the lab in the manner you describe.

    In the classroom, I’m at the front of the room and circulating among the students, managing to some degree their small group interactions. And when small group time is over, they don’t get to just leave. The expectation is that they stay for the full 50 or 75 minutes. This decreases the motivation to finish quickly, providing conditions more conducive to productive small group work.

    The length of time of the activity matters here, too. In a 2-3 hour lab, the difference in finishing times between the first and last groups can be very large. For a short clicker question, I’m only turning the students loose for small-group discussions for 2-3 minutes. Sure, some students finish those discussions sooner than others, but since they only need to wait a minute or two for the others to catch up, it’s easier to keep everyone focused on the activity.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:

    Many people seem to feel that students who aren’t “motivated” to learn from lectures are “motivated” to learn in small groups. My experience is that the first group often doesn’t want to learn in small groups, either.

    If the problem is motivation, small groups are only rarely the solution.

  21. There is a *LOT* of material to learn in physics (and engineering, and …) and it is difficult for a reputable school to water it down much without it becoming obvious when the kids go off to graduate school.

    It would be obvious when the “engineers” and “physicists” took jobs doing what they supposedly learned while earning their degrees.  But by then, it’s too late.

    There is a reason why studies like engineering and medicine have “weed-out” courses.  There are some people who just don’t have what it takes to pick apart problems and see their way through.  There aren’t going to be any clickers in the real world, and probably no “small-group work” either; if you can’t grasp the matter on your own, you aren’t fit for the job.  Better yet, you come to the job knowing all the basics cold and ready to apply them.

    Turning a BSc into another certification of social promotion is the pinnacle of fail, but that does seem to be where we’re going unless the world writes academia a big fat reality check.

  22. tim-10-ber says:

    Vanderbilt uses clickers in some of their classes. Not exactly how I would want $50K of tuition spent…

    I can see how these can help with assessment when needing to check where a class is in understanding (K-6) but cannot see these used as an effective way to learn…what happened to show the work in math or essays and fill in the blank tests? Yes, longer to grade but…

  23. AFA “unmotivated” goes, every undergrad at MIT must have credit for a year of physics, a year of math (starting with calculus), a semester of chemistry, and a semester of biology. If you don’t test out of these courses, you take them your freshman year, which is typically pass/no-record.

    Is it unsurprising that someone coming in to get, say, a computer science degree isn’t all that motivated to learn newtonian mechanics when it’s a pass-fail course? I suppose s/he could pick a different school that doesn’t have that requirement, but…. MIT. I’m just here for the AI lab. Or the economics program. Or the math department. Or….

    MIT has the same share of “unmotivated” students as any other university, at least when it comes to taking mandatory courses that take time away from a student’s real interest.

    FTR, I survived 8.01 and 8.02 sitting in the wooden seats of 26-100 with the rest of the crowds. They weren’t exactly weed-out courses, except to weed out of MIT itself.

  24. I agree with Chippy. “Unmotivated” is a relative concept. There’s a difference between the depth of knowledge a physics major will need and the knowledge an Archaeology and Materials major will need.

    Of course the younger lecturers are in favor of smaller classes. Smaller classes = more teaching positions. The article didn’t go into the relative rates of compensation.

    I also note that suddenly, attendance is counted as a factor in the grade. This hasn’t necessarily increased the absolute amount of knowledge students gain. “Ellis”, commenter #5, points out, “It’s important to note that once attendance is factored into your physics grade, which it is under T.E.A.L., students will attend more often. Failure has also become far more difficult due to relaxed grading standards not present under lecture-style introductory physics.”

    In short, if my kid had the intellectual capacity, and interest, to take the traditional introductory physics lecture, as taught to physics majors, I’d prefer it. They could cover more material in a shorter period of time, and not be restricted to the pace of the slowest member of the group. In addition, they’d have a greater chance of being taught by a “big name” professor, rather than this month’s adjunct.

  25. –Many people seem to feel that students who aren’t “motivated” to learn from lectures are “motivated” to learn in small groups. My experience is that the first group often doesn’t want to learn in small groups, either.

    -If the problem is motivation, small groups are only rarely the solution

    Oh, but you missed the point. Small groups solve the motivation probalem by needing only one person in the group to be motivated, rather than everyone.

    In TEAL, they hand pick the groups to cover that contingency.

    MIT doesn’t have adjuncts teaching physics. MIT has profs teaching lecture and recitation section. Intro physics is often taught by a not-yet-tenured faculty member, but never by an adjunct.

  26. Look, there’s good reason to think that the standard lecture model for classical mechanics and E&M is a terrible method for teaching that material to students, motivated or unmotivated. There are dozens of articles in dozens of journals lamenting the lack of physics knowledge that undergrads have AFTER taking physics courses.

    The real issue is that on learning that the traditional curriculum taught in a lecture hall format doesn’t work, what next? Do you throw out the lecture hall? Or the curriculum? Which is easier? How can you change the curriculum without changing the lecture hall? Can it be done? It takes a lot of work. It’s easier to change the lecture hall to a group lesson plan with experiments and hope for the best.

  27. Hi,
    I agree with Roger Sweeny. Mostly people feels helpless to get motivated from lectures. in this regard small grouping can help a great deal.

  28. Physics is a hard subject. Is there any reason to think that students’ knowledge of physics is due to the lecture method? Noting that many students don’t learn physics from the undergrad lectures doesn’t necessarily mean that the method of content delivery’s at fault. It could be that students don’t arrive at college with the necessary background in mathematics. It could also be a maturity thing.

    IF the university had chosen to give the students in the TEAL classroom the same exams and assessments as the previous year’s class received, and they did better on those exams, then maybe you could say that it were a better method. However, changing from pass/fail to giving a grade in which attendance is a significant percentage of the total means that you can’t use failure rates as a method to compare outcomes.

    “It’s easier to change the lecture hall to a group lesson plan with experiments and hope for the best.”

    Don’t just stand there, do something! in effect? Lectures may be terrible, but what if they’re better than anything else? Is there any hard proof that a small group method is better?

  29. ” Small groups solve the motivation probalem by needing only one person in the group to be motivated, rather than everyone.

    In TEAL, they hand pick the groups to cover that contingency.”

    The debate over small groups vs. individual work isn’t going to go away. If it applies to the geniuses at MIT, the problems are part and parcel of each approach.

    In my opinion, splitting groups up into clusters of high motivation/medium motivation/low motivation doesn’t improve the educational outcome. Those who have high motivation, in this case, the well-prepared physics majors (who could have thrived in a lecture) carry the others on their backs–if there’s any similarity to small group work in other contexts. The strengths of a few students camouflage the others’ weakness.

    If grades are based on the group’s projects, the strong students are penalized, and the weak students are rewarded. This lessens the incentive to work.

  30. I am in the midst of an online degree program with an annual residency requirement. The first two residencies that I attended were at a conference center. The most recent was at a university. Just the physical difference in the environment made a difference in instruction that I didn’t quite get at first. At the conference center, each room is set up by staff for each “event.” Tables are either in rows, or in clusters, etc. Not perfect–some clearly gave no thought to the room arrangement. But, “discuss amongst yourselves” directions were more frequent, and ad hoc discussions, before, during and after presentations were more likely to occur.

    In the university setting, each presentation had the “advantage” of a lecture hall. Students entered, found places in the “fixed” seats, seldom seeking one another out (unspoken boundaries prevent us from occupying the seat closest to someone if there is another one available). The presentations stuck closely to lecture style, and even when there were questions, it was difficult for the prof to make contact with some hand waving off in the distance.

    Overall, I would classify it as a less rich experience.

  31. Allison…I’ve seen studies showing that students who have taken physics classes..and done well in them..often give absolutely bizarre answers when asked to think about simple real-life physics problems. (If a ball is accelerated in a semicircular tube, will it follow a circular path when it comes out?)

    Seems like the best way to deal with this, though, is more emphasis on actual lab experiments, rather than going out and spending money on whatever the hot computer-related technology of the month is.

  32. Parent2 wrote, “Lectures may be terrible, but what if they’re better than anything else? Is there any hard proof that a small group method is better?”

    Yes, actually there’s plenty of hard proof that interactive engagement techniques lead to greater student learning gains than traditional lectures, at least in the case of conceptual learning in first-year undergraduate physics courses.

    Eric Mazur, one of the physics professors quoted in the article, wrote an essay that appeared in Science recently that does a great job of capturing his shift away from traditional lectures. It also includes references to a few parts of the large body of physics education research pointing toward the value of interactive engagement techniques. You can find his essay here:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/323/5910/50

    I’m glad you raised the question about evidence. The conclusion from more than a decade of physics education research is very, very clear: active learning in the classroom leads to greater gains in student learning than the traditional lecture approach. This body of research features validated, reliable assessment measures and very large sample sizes in a variety of courses and institution types.

  33. My only experiences with clickers have been in professional development, and worst, they were used in conjunction with pieces of candy for teachers who give the right answer. When teachers proclaim “No Excuses!”, they get a piece of chocolate and a round of clicks. When teachers buy into the theory of the day, they get the positive reinforcement, and they especially get the clickers going by shouting “Whatever It Takes!” and “Accountability,” and “High Expectations!”

    If I’ve told this here, I’m sorry but my favorite clicker story was the teacher who told how she had been assaulted and was affirmed by clickers.

    “I wanted to cry” she said, prompting the clickers.
    “I wanted to write a referral.”
    “But I didn’t!!!” and clickers sounded as candy was distributed, while most veteran teachers sat in quiet disgust.

  34. John, I think you’re thinking of a completely different type of clickers, the ones used to train dogs? The clickers in the article are electronic devices used to register student responses to multiple-choice questions and display a histogram of results on-screen in real-time.

  35. Parent2,

    I am sorry that my tongue in cheek response wasn’t clear. My point was that they weren’t actually interested in solving the motivation problem, just the pretense of it. That’s why they force the motivated to lead the small groups for the unmotivated. It isn’t going to teach those who aren’t motivated anything, but it does make everyone’s scores go up.

    David Foster,

    Lab experiments alone won’t overcome the bad intuitions students have, but lab experiments coupled with explicit instruction that shows where the intuition is wrong, why the lab experiment shows that, and explicit instruction in understanding the model that is correct can. Some folks are actively working on this, including David Hestenes’ group at ASU. But neither he nor anyone else on that path is willing to create a text book yet, or suggest that you can do that coupled with a lecture. They suggest that you need too much Socratic Method and you can’t do it from a textbook. But textbooks are pieces of the whole, and other courses in other subjects do manage to create excellent lectures+labs+recitation+course notes+assignments to do that. It can be done, but it’s hard hard work.

    For some information on Hestenes’ work and the failures to teach ugrad physics, you can read these blog posts:

    http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2009/07/physics-education-and-failures-in.html

    http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2009/07/physics-education-continued.html

    http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2009/07/fixing-physics-education-modeling.html

  36. I’ve seen studies showing that students who have taken physics classes..and done well in them..often give absolutely bizarre answers when asked to think about simple real-life physics problems. (If a ball is accelerated in a semicircular tube, will it follow a circular path when it comes out?)

    In other words, they didn’t lose their preconceptions in the physics class.  I’m not sure what you can do to ameliorate students who really, verifiably don’t get it but flunking them is probably a good idea.

  37. Guest Blogger Diana Senechal asked:

    “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?”

    As a former physics professor who taught introductory physics, off and on, for 25 years at Indiana University, I like Belcher’s TEAL course and others that emphasize “interactive engagement” (IE) methods, i.e., those “designed at least in part to promote conceptual understanding through active engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors.”

    The evidence that IE Courses such a TEAL enhance learning is overwhelming – see e.g.,”Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses,” Am. J. Phys. 66(1): 64-74 (1998); online at http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~sdi/ajpv3i.pdf.

    For the 62 coursed surveyed, those that employed IE methods achieved average normalized gains g(ave) on a valid and consistently reliable test of conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics that were about two standard deviations greater than those achieved by traditional passive-student lecture courses. Similar results have been reported in about 25 other research articles as listed in “Design-Based Research in Physics Education Research: A Review,” at http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~hake/DBR-Physics3.pdf.

    What do I think of those clickers? Properly used, it’s been demonstrated by Harvard’s Eric Mazur (*not* Diana’s “Kurt Mazur”) and others that “Peer Instruction” pedagogy that utilizes either clickers or low-tech flashcards can achieve large increases in average normalized learning gains over those achieved in traditional courses –see e.g., Crouch and Mazur’s “Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results,” Am. J. Phys. 69: 970-977; online at http://tinyurl.com/sbys4; and also my own “The Case for Classroom Clickers – A Response to Bugeja“ at http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~hake/CaseForClickersJ.pdf .

  38. Diana Senechal says:

    Richard,

    Thank you for the correction: Eric Mazur, not Kurt Mazur (as in Kurt Masur the conductor). I dislike making errors, especially egregious ones, and am glad someone caught it.

    As for the research that has shown the effectiveness of T.E.A.L., that may well be. But we are in school for more than short-term gains. If we have reached a point where the student role in a lecture is viewed as “passive,” we are in trouble.

    The student in a lecture should be anything but passive. This is a time to absorb the material, to make sense of it, to write down and possibly ask questions, to isolate those things that require review, study, working out, and pondering.

    There may be benefits to clickers. But there are also losses. Fast-paced interactive environments simply leave less room for in-depth presentations, and there is too much distraction and activity for a student to get absorbed.

    Not everyone likes peer instruction or benefits from it. We are creating a culture that touts it as superior and dismisses the lecture as “passive,” “chalk and talk,” “sage on the stage,” and all those awful things. Proponents of clickers point to research that shows significant average gains. Critics of clickers point to the losses–the demise of the lecture class, the emphasis on quick results, the emphasis on group talk over thought.

    And many with experience in physics and mathematics will confirm that most of the learning has to be done alone, by pondering the material and working out problems. Surely they cannot all be wrong about this?

    Would it not be possible to retain the lectures and have clicker sections for those who wanted them? Surely you are not saying that students cannot be expected to listen to lectures any more?

    Diana Senechal

  39. Diana Senechal says:

    Richard,

    Speaking of name errors, in “The Case for Classroom Clickers,” you spell Ira David Socol’s surname two ways: “Socol” (twice) and “Socal” (nine times). It appears that “Socol” is correct. Not on the order of my Mazur goof, but I suppose errors happen.

    Perhaps you were thinking of Alan D. Sokal, author of the brilliant postmodernist physics hoax?

    In any case, thank you for the link to the article. It is giving me some more insight into the clicker controversy.

    Diana Senechal

  40. Diana writes, “The student in a lecture should be anything but passive. This is a time to absorb the material, to make sense of it, to write down and possibly ask questions, to isolate those things that require review, study, working out, and pondering.”

    These are precisely the ways that many of my students act during my classes built around clicker-facilitated peer instruction.

    I completely agree with Diana’s statement. This is how students *should* approach lectures. What do we do about the students who don’t approach lectures this way?

    I’m wondering how to encourage and support more students in doing this during a lecture? Most students seem to just copy down notes for later sense-making. What recommendations would you have, Diana, for getting students to the point that they are not passive during lectures–other than interactive engagement techniques like peer instruction?

  41. Student of History says:

    Richard –

    It would have been nice if you had disclosed all of the extensive work in science education you have done for the National Science Foundation in offering your opinion of TEAL.

    It would also be appropriate to point out that Belcher developed TEAL with NSF funding.

    NSF grants may not influence your opinion of TEAL but they do prevent your opinion from being viewed as merely that of a disinterested physics professor.

  42. Diana Senechal says:

    Derek,

    That is an interesting question. I don’t have an immediate answer, but I have a few ideas.

    Maybe part of the reason I enjoy lectures is that I am not a good note-taker. I can’t do both at once: take good notes and think about what the professor is saying. So I listen, make sense of it in my mind, and jot down things for later. So to me lectures seem more active than peer interaction stuff.

    But I had an early start with lectures. The first lectures I attended, I think, were given by astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who was visiting the college where my father taught. He gave lectures for the public, and I went to every one. I was 10 or 11 at the time. I was lucky and also interested. No one made me go to the lectures; I wanted to go.

    Then in high school we had excellent history teachers who gave lectures combined with class discussion. They showed us how to take notes without getting bogged down. I never got good at taking notes during lectures, but I suppose I did get good at not getting bogged down.

    And I have always liked class discussion, which seems somewhere in between the lecture and the rapid small-group activity. In class discussion you can talk a lot, or you can sit back and listen. Unless you seem out of it, teachers usually give students this flexibility. They might call on you unexpectedly, but you still have room to sit back and think.

    What do I draw from this? Students need listening practice, and they need to learn how to listen actively, sustaining their attention for more than a few minutes. Listening intently and making sense of the material in your mind may be more important than taking thorough notes.

    Part of my objection to the “workshop” approach (T.E.A.L. or otherwise) is that it seems to be taking over many subjects. The “workshop model” was mandated in NYC across subject areas and still is in many schools. I can see how it might draw many students in, but there is a cost. Rarely are students expected to listen to anything for more than a few minutes.

    Derek, you mentioned before that you don’t expect your students to learn the way you learned. That is a good point. But it also raises the question: what about those who do learn the way you did, or who do things differently from the majority? I am often told that I am different, my way of doing things is not the norm, etc. But “the norm” may not be exactly what it seems.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking comments.

    Diana Senechal

  43. Thanks for your very thoughtful reply to my question, Diana. I have a couple of follow-up comments.

    Research by engineering professor Richard Felder and others has indicated that some students are “active learners,” learning best when actively engaging in discussion about a topic. Others are “reflective learners,” learning best when given time to think and reflect. It sounds like you’re a reflective learner. Felder argues that the “traditional” lecture doesn’t support either type of learner, however. If the instructor is doing all the talking, then the active learners don’t get a chance to learn in their preferred way. And if the instructor doesn’t build in pauses for reflection, the reflective learners are short-changed, too.

    So how to handle a variety of kinds of learners in a classroom? My approach is to use a variety of instructional techniques. I’ll pose a clicker question and have my students think about it silently and submit their answers. Then, if the distribution of answers indicates some confusion about the question, I’ll have them discuss the question with their neighbors and re-vote. Then I’ll lead a class discussion on the question, asking student volunteers to share their reasoning with the class. I’ll usually end with a mini-lecture–really just a time where I provide my explanation for the question at hand.

    This structure does at least two things well: It provides students with different kinds of learning activities (quiet reflection, small-group discussion, large-group discussion, listening to an “expert” explanation). It also creates what is sometimes called a “time for telling.” It’s not that I don’t offer my explanation, it’s that I put that explanation at the end of the activity, at which point the students are ready to hear it–ready because they’ve had a chance to grapple with the question and ready because they’re interested in hearing the correct answer.

  44. My apologies if this comment appears more than once. I have repeatedly attempted to transmit it today, 11 Sept 2009, but with no apparent success.

    I thank Diana Senechal for her thoughtful comments on my response to her post “What’s with those clickers in physics class?” Four points – Diana wrote:

    1111111111111111111111111111111
    1. “The student in a lecture should be anything but passive. This is a time to absorb the material, to make sense of it, to write down and possibly ask questions, to isolate those things that require review, study, working out, and pondering.”

    Of course, I completely agree. But in the real world, what *is* and what *should be* are two different things. The hard facts are that the average present-day student of introductory physics – even at Harvard and MIT – reacts passively to lectures and learns very little from them. This has been demonstrated, for example, by the very low average normalized gains of 0.23 [plus or minus 0.04 (std dev)] on a test of conceptual understanding of Newtonian Mechanics in 14 traditional lecture courses surveyed in “Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses,” Am. J. Phys. 66(1): 64-74 (1998); online at http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~sdi/ajpv3i.pdf . These gains are to be compared with the average normalized gains of 0.48 [plus or minus 0.14 (std dev)] of 48 traditional lecture courses that I surveyed. Similar results have been obtained by many other physics education research groups, as I indicated previously in my initial comment.

    2222222222222222222222222222222
    2. “Proponents of clickers point to research that shows significant average gains. Critics of clickers point to the losses – the demise of the lecture class, the emphasis on quick results, the emphasis on group talk over thought.”

    Four points – a,b,c,d:

    a. If the average introductory physics lecture class results in average normalized gains on a valid and consistently reliable test of conceptual understanding that are about two standard deviations below those of “interactive engagement” courses, how serious should be the concern for the demise of the introductory physics lecture class?

    b. Does the average normalized gain reflect only “quick results” apparent only directly after a course? Not so according to (a) Greg Francis et al. in “Do they stay fixed?” Physics Teacher 36(8): 488- 491 (1998) http://tinyurl.com/ne558w ; and (2) Jonte Bernhard in “Does active engagement curricula give long-lived conceptual understanding?” Proceedings of GIREP 2000: Physics Teacher Education Beyond 2000, Barcelona; online at http://tinyurl.com/npmcqb .

    c. Is “group talk” inimical to “thought” ? If “group thought” means “social interaction” then it advances rather than retards thought for most students – see e.g., Joe Redish’s “5th principle of the cognitive model of instruction” – see point #3 below.

    Furthermore, if Diana and others would take a crack at the “Force Concept Inventory” of David Hestenes et al., password protected at http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/Research.html (scroll down to “Evaluation Instruments”) , then she and they might agree that correct responses from non-thinking students are unlikely.

    d. Why the emphasis on the “average student” rather than the “exceptional student”? Because most exceptional students will learn on their own, even despite the (for them) usually helpful but unnecessary “interactive engagement.” On the other hand, the fate of the Planet is in the hands and minds of the masses of “average students” who, at least in democracies, control national policy – see e.g., ” ‘The Threat to Life on Planet Earth’ Is a More Important Issue Than David Brooks’ ‘Skills Slowdown’ “ at http://tinyurl.com/l28ojd .

    3333333333333333333333333333333
    3. “And many with experience in physics and mathematics will confirm that most of the learning has to be done alone, by pondering the material and working out problems. Surely they cannot all be wrong about this?”

    The “many” to whom Diana refers are probably the *relative* few, such as (evidently) herself, who can benefit from good lectures. Their claims pertain to themselves but certainly not to the majority of introductory physics students.

    Physics education guru Joe Redish, on page 39, Chapter 2, of “Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite,” online at http://www2.physics.umd.edu/~redish/Book/ wrote [bracketed by lines “RRRRR. . . . . .”; see Redish’s book for the references]:

    RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR
    This [5th principle of the cognitive model of instruction] is based on the work on group learning that builds on the ideas of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. These ideas have had a profound impact on modern theories of teaching and learning [Vygotsky (1987), Jonnson (1993)]:

    Principle 5: For most individuals, learning is most effectively carried out by social interactions.

    I once heard David Halliday. . . . . [physicist and coauthor of the famous Halliday/Resnick text]. . . . . remark that what he enjoyed most as a student was sitting down by himself alone in a quite room with a physics text and going “one-on-one” with the authors of the book – trying to understand them and figure out what they were saying. Many of us have similar inclinations. Physicists as a group seem to be selected for the character of being able to learn on our own. But in examining my experiences of this type, I have decided that “learning on my own” involves the ability to create an “internalized other” – to take a variety of viewpoints and to argue with myself. This is a not commonly found characteristic and should not be assumed in a general population of students.
    RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

    444444444444444444444444444444444444
    4. “Speaking of name errors, in ‘The Case for Classroom Clickers’ . . . . .[ http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~hake/CaseForClickersJ.pdf ] . . . . you spell Ira David Socol’s surname two ways: “Socol” (twice) and “Socal” (nine times). It appears that “Socol” is correct. Not on the order of my Mazur goof, but I suppose errors happen.”

    Touché! Diana is right, in all cases I meant to refer to clicker naysayer, Ira David Socol http://tinyurl.com/6p2blm of Michigan State. I would apologize but it’s not my fault! It’s the fault of my stupid spiel chequer – see e.g., Jerrold Zar’s “Candidate for a Pullet Surprise” at http://www.jir.com/favorites.html .

  45. An elaboration of my previous informal comments on Diana Senechal’s “What’s with those clickers in physics class?” is contained in an academic-style discussion-list post of 13 Sept 2009 titled “At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard – REDUX #2.”

    The abstract reads:

    ********************************************
    ABSTRACT: Sara Rimer’s New York Times report “At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard” concerning John Belcher’s “Technology-Enabled Active Learning” (TEAL) program has received widespread attention (about 30,000 hits on Google). Recently, guest blogger Diana Senechal (2009) in her provocative post “What’s with those clickers in physics class?” criticized TEAL on the basis of (a) comments published in the NYT by a few disaffected MIT students, and (b) her own preference for lectures over what she perceived as “group buzz, multiple-choice problems, and clickers.”

    Similarly, Margaret Harris’ PhysicsWorld criticism of TEAL relies primarily on the comments of a few disgruntled MIT students.

    But neither student comments nor one’s own preferences provide valid gauges of the *cognitive* (as opposed to the *affective*) impact of a course on the *average* student.

    As repeatedly emphasized, the cognitive impact of a course is best gauged by pre-to-postest normalized gains on valid and consistently reliable tests developed through arduous quantitative and qualitative research by disciplinary experts.

    Although this idea is gradually gaining traction in undergraduate astronomy, biology, chemistry, economics, geoscience, engineering, calculus, and physics, most of academia has turned a deaf ear. But similar ideas, independently suggested by physics Nobelist Carl Wieman (2005) may attract more attention.
    ******************************************* 

    To access the complete 27 kB post please click on http://tinyurl.com/kqfpxy .

    Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University
    24245 Hatteras Street, Woodland Hills, CA 91367
    Honorary Member, Curmudgeon Lodge of Deventer, The Netherlands.

    http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~hake/
    http://www.physics.indiana.edu/~sdi/
    http://HakesEdStuff.blogspot.com/

    REFERENCES
    Hake, R.R. 2009. “At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard – REDUX #2,” online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at http://tinyurl.com/kqfpxy . Post of 13 Sep 2009 08:31:05-0700 to AERA-L, Net-Gold, and PhysLrnR. The abstract only was transmitted to various discussion lists.

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  1. […] article describing MIT’s Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) classrooms.  Just today, Diana Senechal blogged about the article, too, as well as her own experiences as an adult student in a physics class that uses clickers.  A […]