Out with the lecture!

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman says that science educators must learn how to help their students learn

The traditional lecture format of many science classes may actually be making undergraduate students understand science less, renowned physicist Carl Wieman said during a speech Monday at the University of British Columbia. This revelation is fueling a growing movement in the sciences to revolutionize how science is taught, he said, especially in lower-level university classes.

Nobel Prize-winning Wieman – who left his laboratory at the University of Colorado a year and a half ago to head up UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative – explained his recent research at a talk at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, taking place this week at UBC.

Wieman said that physics is currently leading the sciences in this discipline-based education research, but chemistry and biology are following with their own journals devoted to the subject and a number of science researchers looking specifically at education. This is a relatively new development since traditionally research into teaching and learning came solely from education researchers, not science academics.

Discipline-based education research is leading to new questions about how students learn. “The biggest burden is that people assume higher education only involves knowing the subject,” Wieman explained, adding that simple memorization of concepts and equations does not equate to actually understanding the science. His goal is to find ways to help students “think about and use science like a scientist” even though they may not necessarily become one.

Wieman illustrated the problem facing science professors by citing a survey that asked students which basic concepts of force they understood both before and after an introductory physics course. The survey revealed that the average student had learned less than 30 per cent of the concepts taught that they did not already know. These results were not affected by the size of the class, quality of the lecturer, or the institution. Surveys in other disciplines yielded similar results.

The problem seems to be rooted in how students internalize information. Many students memorize equations and can easily solve standard problems but are not able to apply the concepts to other, similar questions not phrased in the way they were taught.

According to Wieman, this realization shocked physicists. He explained that physics “experts” differ in the way that they think from physics “novices” because experts understand concepts in how they relate to the physical world, not just as isolated ideas. Borrowing language from cognitive psychology, he explained that an expert is not only someone with vast knowledge of a subject, but one who also has the ability, or mental framework, to use concepts in different situations and monitor their own learning and thinking.

In other words, teaching students factual science knowledge is not the same as teaching them how to use science. “Notice students are understanding physics as an isolated activity handed down from someone up there pronouncing truths,” he said.

Wieman developed a survey to learn more about whether taking intro science classes helped students think about science more like scientists. For example, he asked whether they “think about the physics they encounter in everyday life” and whether “it is possible to explain physics ideas without mathematical formulas.” The results showed that students are in fact emerging from intro classes thinking more like a novices —and less like real scientists—than they did before they took the course.
Wieman believes that alternatives to the traditional lecture can transform this learning experience. He discussed the use of technology – including “clickers” and interactive simulations – to more effectively engage classes with hundreds of students. He says that additions and changes to traditional lecturing styles that involve the student have shown promising results.

The finding that concerns Wieman most has to do with the beliefs that students hold about science and why they study it. Students often see problem solving as “pattern matching to memorized recipes” rather than “systematic concept-based strategies that are widely applicable.”

But Wieman says professors don’t need technology to begin to address this problem. He says that being explicit about a course’s objectives and application can make a big difference. Professors need to tell their students why the subject is worth learning, how it connects to the real world, and how it is connected to other concepts the students understands.

Wieman’s initiative at UBC is now looking at how to implement discipline-based education research. He says that science teaching is already beginning to change as the university community learns that becoming an expert is not only about the factual knowledge of a subject.

He pointed to the humanities as a model. “The humanities wouldn’t think of a lecturer coming into class and simply reading Shakespeare to students,” he said. “The students read the content and then come to class and discuss.”

“We’re still learning that in physics.”