+ Hands-on Work Seems to Improve Science Learning

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In the New York Times, Benedict Carey reports on research that aims to improve science learning.

A group led by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in Physics at the University of British Columbia, is participating in a $12 million initiative to improve science instruction.  They aim to use research-backed methods for both testing students’ understanding and improving how science is taught.

One of the most visible studies found that students in an introductory college physics course did especially well on an exam after attending experimental, collaborative classes during the 12th week of the course.

But students taking the same course from a different instructor (who didn’t use the experimental approach and continued with lectures as usual) scored much lower on the same exam.

Dr. Wieman and his co-authors say that some instructors at the university were already eager to adopt the new approach, convinced that it should improve learning broadly, both in other sciences and at many levels.

Experts who reviewed the new report caution that it is not truly convincing. 

They feel the study has a variety of limitations, not only because of the difficulty of doing research in the slacker-world that is the Freshman year of college, but also because of the design of the study.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia,

The whole issue of how to draw on basic science and apply it in classrooms is a whole lot more complicated than they’re letting on.

Willingham feels that the study was — among other things — not controlled enough to tell which of the changes in teaching might have accounted for the difference in students’ scores.

The Method: “Deliberate Practce”

Wieman’s  group had two teaching assistants take over one of the two introductory physics classes during the 12th week of the term. 

These teaching assistants taught the material in a radically different way from the usual lectures.

Both this class and the comparison class were large lecture-hall courses.  Each class had more than 260 students enrolled.

Instead of delivering lectures, these new instructors conducted collaborative classes, in which students worked in teams to answer questions about electromagnetic waves.  The new teachers circulated among the students, picking up on common questions and points of confusion.  They gave immediate feedback on study teams’ answers.

These methods are based on an approach known as “deliberate practice,” which in previous research has been shown to lead to  real expertise acquisition.

One of those teaching assistants, Louis Deslauriers, says

As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into a mental model.   When they can incorporate things into a mental model, we find much better retention.

Deslauriers is a post doctoral researcher, and co-taught with Ellen Schelew, a graduate student.

Students in the experimental class finally took a test on the material and scored an average of 74 percent.   This was more than twice the average of students in the comparison course who took the test.  (Previously, on mid-terms, they had scored almost exactly the same.)

However, this is college; it was also end of term.  Not everyone showed up — more than 150 students were absent during the test, most of them from the comparison class. 

So researchers had no way to know how those students — if they’d shown up — would have changed overall findings.

Critics also say the study had another problem: the authors of the study were also delivering the intervention — and doing it as enthusiastic teachers.

According to James W. Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA,

This is not a good idea, since they knew exactly what the hypotheses are that guide the study, and more importantly exactly what the measures are that will be used to evaluate the effects.  They might, therefore, be tailoring their instruction to the assessment — i.e. teaching to the test.

He feels, however, that the study is a long overdue and  important step in this journey to improve learning.

sole source: Benedict Carey’s article in the NY Times on 5/17/11.  Visit http://www.nytimes.com

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