It is not teacher, but method that matters

It is not teacher, but method that matters

It is not teacher, but method that matters

A study by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, now a science adviser to President Barack Obama, suggests that how you teach is more important than who does the teaching.

He found that in nearly identical classes, Canadian college students learned a lot more from teaching assistants using interactive tools than they did from a veteran professor giving a traditional lecture. The students who had to engage interactively using the TV remote-like devices scored about twice as high on a test compared to those who heard the normal lecture, according to a study published on Thursday in the journal Science.

The interactive method had almost no lecturing. It involved short, small-group discussions, in-class "clicker" quizzes, demonstrations and question-answer sessions.

The teachers got real-time graphic feedback on what the students were learning and what they weren't getting.

“It's really what's going on in the students' minds rather than who is instructing them," said lead researcher Carl Wieman of the University of British Columbia, who shared a Nobel physics prize in 2001. "This is clearly more effective learning. Everybody should be doing this. ... ."

The study compared just two sections of physics classes for just one week, but Wieman said the technique would work for other sciences as well, and even for history.

Previous research has produced similar results. But this study, appearing in a major scientific journal and written by a Nobel laureate, can make a big difference in the field of teaching science, said Robert Beichner, a physicist and professor of science education at North Carolina State University. Wieman heads the science education programs at both the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado.

He's also associate director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Lloyd Armstrong, a former provost at the University of Southern California and professor of physics and education, agreed that the study shows "it's not the professor, it's not even the technology, it's the approach."

Beichner, who uses the more hands-on method himself, likened it to the difference between being told how to ride a bike vs getting on and riding it.

A prominent proponent of the traditional physics teaching method declined to talk about the study. Walter Lewin of MIT wrote in an email, "I have a rather unique lecture style which they could not cover in their tests."

In the spring 2010 experiment, Wieman and his colleagues followed two nearly identical physics classes of more than 250 students that were taught the usual way three hours a week for 11 weeks. In the 12th week, one class got stuck with the long-tenured and well-regarded professor in lecture mode. The second class was taught by two of Wieman's grad students using the interactive method.

The classes' test scores were nearly identical before the interactive sessions, but there was an obvious difference after the students took a 12-question quiz on what they were taught during the experimental week of instruction. Students in the interactive class got an average of 74 percent of the questions right, while those taught using traditional method scored only 41 percent.