5 Questions with Nobel Prize Winner Carl Wieman

Filed under Education

Teaching is inherently full of personal nuance, but the general discipline of teaching — an expert standing in front of a classroom and delivering a lecture — has remained more or less unchanged since the dawn of schools. Your work now is focused on challenging that norm, and persuading teachers there is a better way to teach. Describe what you think the best classroom model for student learning is.

The classroom was originally invented as a way to pass information and text from one person to many people. With the invention of the printing press, however, that lecture structure became unnecessary. The classroom should instead be used as an opportunity for students to practice expert-like thinking while getting timely feedback from their instructor and fellow students.

“With the invention of the printing press the lecture has became unnecessary.”

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This is the mental equivalent of mastering athletic performance. Instead of passively listening and confirming recognition of information, students need to practice; practice at actively recalling information and using it to solve problems to make sense of new ideas — all while the instructor challenges and facilitates their thinking. This is what an effective tutor does when providing individual attention. An excellent instructor can also teach using this technique to many students at a time in a full classroom, particularly if they utilize the benefits of peer interaction and simple technology to monitor every student’s understanding.

“With the invention of the printing press the lecture has became unnecessary.”

Your research suggests that lecturer quality, class size, and institution do not matter in terms of learning outcomes. How can that be? And in that case, what does matter?

Learning outcomes are most heavily dependent on a student's internal brain activity, rather than external factors such as classroom size and quality. What happens in a student's brain is largely determined by what teaching methods an instructor uses. If a student is sitting passively listening to a lecturer talk, their brain is not getting the thinking practice and feedback ("mental exercise") that is essential for learning--that is true in every institution, of any class size, with good or bad lecturers. What does matter is the kind of exercise their brain is getting, and that depends primarily on what the instructor is having students do, not what information they are telling them.

Why have current evaluations of teaching not led to the adoption of the more effective teaching methods that you and others have shown to be more effective? Do you think there are better metrics than student course evaluations, which are currently the standard way that college teaching is evaluated?

Studies show that student evaluations of instructors have little if any correlation with measures of learning or the use of effective teaching methods. Those evaluations are in fact better correlated with factors outside the instructor’s control, such as class size, if a course is required or elective, and the gender and appearance of an instructor. These confounding factors provide little meaningful guidance for how to improve.

As a result, instructors often do things they believe will improve student evaluations such as telling more jokes and grading easier, rather than adopting better teaching methods. Institutional and departmental incentive systems also put little weight on teaching evaluations, and instead focus almost entirely on research productivity. A better way to evaluate teaching would be to examine the extent to which instructors use research-based teaching methods that have been consistently associated with better student outcomes, both in terms of learning and completion rates.

My group has developed a relatively quick and simple survey that measures an “effective teaching practice” (ETP) score for a STEM course. If this metric were used for teaching evaluations, meaningful incentives could be given to adopt better methods, and students would be able to make informed decisions as to which courses and institutions provide the best teaching.

In the future, will the role of the lecture as we know it today be obsolete in classrooms?

I certainly hope so! There are far better ways to transfer information, which is all that the classroom lecture of today provides. The classroom of the future will be filled with students eagerly engaged with interesting tasks that have them struggling successfully to make sense of new ideas and figuring out how to use the methods of experts from a variety of disciplines to solve problems.

In the classroom of the future, the instructor will be circulating through the room, seeing how they are doing and stepping in to facilitate where needed. It will look more like the cognitive equivalent to a good athletic practice program overseen by an expert coach. The cognitive coach gives them suitable thinking-practice exercises, points out where they can improve, and inspires them to put in the necessary effort to master the subject. There will likely be a lot of technology in the background to help these efforts by enhancing communication, feedback, and more authentic problem solving.

You have focused most of your research within the context of higher education. Does your research have implications for K-12 education as well?

The general concept of active learning, where a student works on challenging tasks while getting guiding feedback to help them improve, is certainly the most effective way to teach every subject at every level, whether it in grade school or in graduate school.

Adopting this kind of instruction within the K-12 system is possible, but it likely will be more challenging to make widespread. There are many challenges in the K-12 classroom that we higher ed teachers do not have to face, and this kind of instruction requires teachers to have a deep mastery of subject content--a mastery considerably deeper than the standard lecture warrants. Unfortunately, many K-12 science teachers leave college without taking courses which provide them with the necessary mastery of STEM content and model of effective teaching for them to teach in this way.