Posted by: CJ | December 10, 2010

Five Easy Lessons

I was skimming through the first few chapters of Five Easy Lessons, a book on teaching freshman calculus-based physics. The book is actually quite interesting for its insights beyond just freshman physics courses, which is why I was reading it.

The book has some data from teaching. Here are the simple summaries of its findings, filtered by my own viewpoints.

  • The standard lecture format is inherently limited. In such courses, students do basically the same, in terms of material learned, more or less independently of who teaches the course. Good lecturers or bad lecturers are, essentially, a fantasy. Some of them make it more fun than others, but the students don’t really learn any more. (And this result holds in a statistical sense. Sometimes classes will do better, sometimes worse, but it more or less all balances out over time.)
  • Students don’t learn terribly much in the standard lecture and big problem sets with lots of equations and few concepts format. For example, if at the end of the course you test students on basic qualitative, conceptual questions instead of equations, their ability to answer correctly will be miserable. They somehow are able to learn how to manipulate equations to obtain the right answer without truly understanding what’s going on in at all the intermediate steps, or what any of it all means.
  • Students by and large have many misconceptions–or, perhaps, alternate conceptions–that are not corrected by instruction. It’s not that the students don’t learn, it’s that the courses are not successful enough in challenging what the students think they know to make sure what they believe lines up with physical theory.
  • The above can be remedied, to a surprisingly large extent, by changing the structure of the class. Make the format more interactive, stop basically reading from the book to the students and make it absolutely necessary that the students read on their own, include more conceptual and qualitative questions, directly confront common misconceptions, etc..

I found the first 40 or 50 pages of the book absolutely fascinating. Taken together, it’s relatively convincing evidence that the standard mode of instruction for large, introductory classes is an absolutely awful idea. The only way in which it’s good is as a low time commitment for the lecturing professors. Otherwise the whole thing is just unhelpful and produces dreadful outcomes. I assume much of this generalizes beyond freshman physics, though I would love to see data and theories on that.

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