How Teaching Should Change, According to a Nobel-Prize-Winning Physicist

How Teaching Should Change, According to a Nobel-Prize-Winning Physicist

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After Carl Wieman won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2001 for, as he puts it, “shining lasers on atoms” in a new way that gave experimental proof to a theory by Albert Einstein, Wieman decided to shift his research focus. He devoted the bulk of his time and energy to studying how to improve teaching.

“I just could make a bigger difference in education,” he says.

Education research wasn’t new to Wieman, who these days is an emeritus professor of physics and of education at Stanford University. In fact he had been pursuing research to improve physics teaching for years, as a parallel area of work that people hadn’t paid much attention to. But with the fame brought by the Nobel, he hoped to raise the profile of educational research.

He argues that the traditional lecture method for teaching physics and other STEM fields has been proven ineffective, and that shifts to more active methods can greatly improve learning outcomes to make sure the next generation of researchers can make the next Nobel-worthy breakthroughs.

Wieman has led efforts to improve science teaching. He wrote the book “Improving How Universities Teach Science.” And he won the world’s top teaching award in 2020, the $4 million Yidan Prize.

So what has he learned in more than 20 years from applying his persistence (and much of the money he won from the Nobel) to studying teaching?

EdSurge connected with Wieman to find out, and to hear about his more recent efforts to improve how teaching evaluations are done at colleges to make them more useful — and more equitable.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What was it that got you started in doing research on effective teaching?

Carl Wieman: It was really started by sort of a puzzle that I saw, which was that I had these graduate students come in to work in my research lab doing physics, and they’d had many years of great success in physics courses, but they really didn’t seem to know how to do physics when they came in to work for me.

There wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with them, because after they worked for me for a couple years, they turned into expert physicists. And so after I saw this happening over and over again, and I saw actually sort of a correlation, that the really top students in coursework never turned out to be the better physicists, I decided there was some fundamental question here about learning and thinking.

And so I just tackled this as a science question, and I started reading the research on how people learn — how people learn physics. … And it showed me there were much better ways to teach than what was being used in most of our courses.

Did you feel there has been something lacking in the teaching you had in physics when you were a student?

Well, I always hesitate to use myself as data. But in fact there were some pretty unique aspects in my education that is in the back of my mind when I’m looking at what’s happening with other students. And in my case, I in fact got involved in doing physics research at a very early stage in my first year in college, and got heavily involved in it and decided this was a whole lot more interesting and worthwhile than taking courses.

And so I really spent my whole college career devoted to research and doing the minimal coursework I could get away with, essentially. And I managed to get lots of loopholes, to get away with a lot. And so for me, my education was overwhelmingly just actually doing research, interacting with other research students and graduate students in the lab. And the coursework, I never felt I learned terribly much from any of my classes, but it was very much secondary.

You talk about needing to change the paradigm of teaching physics and other STEM fields. Broadly, what do you think should change?

So the norm is really this paradigm of, you’ve got a brain, and it’s a sort of fixed thing, and you fill it up with knowledge. And how well it can absorb that knowledge is just determined by the characteristics of that brain. And so colleges spend lots of time focusing on, ‘OK, how do we select the brains that’ll absorb the most with admissions and tests and such?’ And then, ‘What material are we going to try and pour into them? What things do we cover?’ That’s the old and still largely pervasive paradigm.

But I’d say what research shows us is a very different picture, which is that the brain is very, what we call plastic, it changes. So really you need to think about that these student brains come into the classroom ready to be transformed by their educational experience. And the better their educational experience, the more their brains are changed. And what’s really happening is you’re rewiring how the neurons are hooked up, and that’s developing new capabilities in those brains. And so it’s very much not an idea of a fixed brain with its capacity, it’s how much new capability you can develop in a brain through proper education.

And the best form of that education that essentially does the best transformation of the brain is really having the brain practice the thinking you want it to learn. And so rather than sitting, listening to somebody, drone away, giving information where the brain is doing very little — essentially just taking in sounds — it needs to be actively thinking about ideas, solving problems, figuring things out with feedback and guidance as it’s practicing. That it’s strengthening, essentially, through the right kind of mental exercise. And so that’s really the different paradigm, is how do you exercise the brain in the right way to best develop new capabilities in it.

You’ve famously compared lecturing to bloodletting. It sounds like you stand by that pretty harsh critique.

Yes. This was my soundbite, but it was effective, that lectures are the pedagogical equivalent to bloodletting. And this isn’t just flippant. I mean if you look at it, for 2000 years people felt bloodletting was the treatment of choice and you could justify it because well, you let blood from people and look, they got better. And so obviously it was working.

And so much of the same thing is happening with lectures. You give lectures to a bunch of students, and some of those students actually turn out to be pretty good. And so obviously that means the lecture was effective and the students who weren’t successful, their brains weren’t very good. And so that’s how you could continue to justify lectures as effective in very similar ways to how you justified that bloodletting was good. Yeah, it didn’t work for all the people, but that was just the fault of those people who had poor systems.

I hear you even tested the value of your own lectures on students to show this?

One little study I did was, I sort of picked some important but non-obvious fact and lectured about it and then tested students on it half an hour later. And 10 percent of them actually remembered it. So 90 percent didn’t get this.

And then actually later on I repeated this, but I presented this material in what we call an active learning environment, where rather than just telling students that they had to answer a question, they had to figure out a question about how something behaved and then get feedback on that. And then I tested them on that and overwhelmingly they all remembered it. So that was just a very simple but clear demonstration of what I thought was pretty good lecturing was not very effective.

You’ve led many efforts to reform college teaching and written a book on it. Are you frustrated that that hasn’t led to more change than it has?

I’m always frustrated because I’m an impatient sort of person. But at the same time, I have to admit that you’re dealing with something that’s very entrenched culturally and historically, and that’s just hard to make big changes in things like that.

And there really has been quite a bit of change. I mean, you see aspects like the [Association of American Universities] launched a big program and its STEM education initiative six or seven years ago that is devoted to changing the teaching of introductory science courses. It represents the 60 or so leading research universities in North America, and it’s calling on its members to change how they teach. That sort of thing would’ve been unheard of not very long ago.

One thing you’ve focused on more recently is teaching evaluation at colleges. Why that topic?

We’re trying to solve what I see as a really fundamental issue in improving education. And that’s the methods for evaluating teaching, particularly at the university level, where I think everybody realizes that we don’t have good ways of doing that.

The things that almost every university uses is student evaluations. And those have tremendous flaws to them. They’re very biased, and they don’t capture effective teaching practices at all. And everybody knows that they’re highly flawed and they’re probably going to be illegal because there’s such good evidence that they are very biased against, for example, if you’re a underrepresented minority or a female instructor in a white-dominated field, you just get lower evaluations even if you do this exactly the same as a white male does. So anyway, so it’s a real problem.

People always say you can’t tell [faculty] what to do. I’m convinced they really are doing what they get rewarded for. And right now the teaching evaluations are so meaningless. They really are counted appropriately, counted very little in the incentive and reward promotion system. So what you need is something that’s a good meaningful evaluation that then could be taken seriously in how you hire and promote people, and then it’ll make a big difference.

AAU has run a competition that then provided grants to I think five or six departments to come up with demonstration projects of better evaluation systems. So we’ll see how that works out.

Listen to the full discussion, including examples of active learning methods shown to work and how Wieman thinks the pandemic has impacted teaching on the EdSurge Podcast.



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