+ At MIT, Large Lectures May Be Going Out of Fashion

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In Sara Rimer’s article in the NY Times, we are reminded that at MIT, introductory physics has for years been taught in a vast, windowless amphitheater known by its number, 26-100.

So 300 freshmen anxiously took notes while professors covered multiple blackboards with mathematical formulas and explained the principles of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism.

Such classes were geared more to physics majors.  Students who were planning to major in physics, who wanted to understand, had the discipline to sit down afterwards and say “I’m going to figure this out.” 

But the majority,  who were unable to absorb 50 minutes of intense information, floundered, stopped showing up and many failed the course.

Dr Carl Wieman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who directs a science education initiative at the University of British Columbia. 

In an article in the education journal Change last year, he wrote that the human brain can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory, and can process no more than about four ideas at once.

“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” says Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard who is a pioneer of a new approach, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes  of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.”

So physicists at MIT and other universities across the country are making striking changes.

At MIT, the physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning.

After years of experimentation, last fall the department made the change permanent.  Already attendance is up, and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent.

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

And instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens.  The professor circulates with a team of teaching assistants.  She makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in samll groups.

Experiments are conducted by teachers and students together.  The room hums as students confer with tablemates, call out questions, or jump up to write formulas on the white boards.

Says Peter Dourmashkin, a senior lecturer in physics at MIT, “There was a long tradition that what it meant to teach was to give a really well-prepared lecture.  It was the students’ job to figure it out.”

But, he and others in the department say, the problem was that a lot of students had trouble doing that.  And the failure rate for those lecture courses  — even those taught by the most mesmerizing teachers — was typically 10 percent to 12 percent.  It has dropped to 4 percent.

The new approach at MIT is known by its acronym, TEAL, for Technology Enhanced Active Learning.  A $10 million donation helped MIT to make the switch.  The two state-of-the-art TEAL classrooms alone cost $2.5 million, says Professor John Belcher, a space physicist.

Unlike the lecture format, attendance counts toward the final grade.  Attendance is up to 80 percent.  Classes meet three times a week, for a total of five hours.  Homework is due three times a week.

 Only introductory physics courses follow the new method at the moment.  Math, biology and chemistry are still taught through large lecture courses and small recitations.  And in the physics department, debate over teaching methods continues.

Gabriella Sciolla, one of the newer professors, gauges the level of understanding in her classes by throwing out a series of multiple-choice questions.  Students “vote” with their wireless “personal response clickers” which are essential to TEAL.  These transmit the answers to a computer monitored by the professor and her assistants.

When she was lecturing in 26-100, she says, she could only look out at the sea of faces and hope the students were getting it.

“They might be looking intently at you.  Or they might be thinking, ‘What am I going to do when I get out of this bloody class?’ ”

But now,  Professor Sciolla says, “You know where they are.”  Looking at  students’ clicker responses she can then adjust, slowing down or engaging students in guided discussions of their answers.

sole source: NY Times article by Sara Rimer on 1/13/09.  www.nytimes.com

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