Friday, June 10, 2011

UBC Study Supports Interactive Learning

A study recently published in Science (click here to go directly to the full article) concludes that learning in an introductory university physics class can be significantly improved through the use of interactive methods compared to traditional lecture methodology.

The university press release provides an overview of the key features of conclusions of the study. The study, which took place at the University of British Columbia, matched two classes in second term of introductory physics, during an electromagnetism unit.  Both classes had experienced traditional lectures for the first portion of the year, and standardized tests showed that they were well matched in terms of attitudes to physics and physics achievement.

For one week (3 hr of instruction time) one class (each had about 270 students) was taught traditionally by a highly rated senior professor.  The other class were taught by a trained but not experienced young scholar (the lead author of the paper) assisted by a graduate student teaching assistant.   The press release describes the experimental group this way "During the experimental week, Deslauriers and Schelew gave no formal lecturing but guided students through a series of activities that had previously been shown to enhance learning, such as paired and small-group discussions and active learning tasks, which included the use of remote-control “clickers” to provide feedback for in-class questions. Pre-class reading assignments and quizzes were also given to ensure students were prepared to discuss course material upon arrival in class."
Results on the same test for experimental and control group (from the cited paper).

The results were truly impressive, particularly considering the short term nature of the experiment.  The figure shows the mark distribution (on the same test) for the experimental and the traditional groups.   The average test score was 74% for the experimental group versus 41% for the control group.  There was also a significant (20%) improvement in class attendance and engagement.

While the results are not surprising to those familiar with the PER literature, the relatively straightforward approach and dramatic differences are sure to help convince skeptics.  Interactive methods really do lead to better learning in physics classrooms.

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