Who's better at teaching difficult physics to a class of more than 250 college students: the highly rated veteran professor using time-tested lecturing or the inexperienced graduate students interacting with kids via devices that look like TV remotes? The answer could rattle ivy on college walls.
A study by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman, 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 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 gotreal-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 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. ... You're practicing bad teaching if you are not doing this."
The study compared two sections of physics classes for just one week, but Wieman said the technique would work for other sciences, 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. Beichner, named the 2010 U.S. undergraduate science professor of the year by the Society for College Science Teachers, wasn't part of the study but praised Wieman's work: "He's got the scientific chops" to make other professors consider retooling their approaches.
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.