By Margaret Harris
I came to physics very late by UK standards: I had already started my freshman year of college. For scheduling reasons, I therefore had to take introductory mechanics with engineers rather than physics majors. Supposedly, this meant I had roughly 300 classmates, but in practice, attendance at any given lecture hovered around 50 students – half of whom sat slumped in the back of the room, muttering “God, I hate physics”.
It seems that my experience was far from unique, and according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, the physics department at MIT has decided to do something about it. Their new mechanics and E&M courses for undergrads employ something called Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL that does away with the traditional professor-in-front-of-blackboard lecture format in favour of students working on physics concepts in small groups at round tables. Various high-tech gizmos let the students answer questions posed by the professor, who wanders around the room with a few teaching assistants giving presentations and answering questions.
The result? Attendance at these non-lectures has shot up from less than 50% under the old format to over 80%, and the failure rate has dropped from 12% to 4%. The NY Times article quotes a number of experts who think the new system is just great – including atomic physicist Carl Wieman, who’s become deeply involved in changing physics education since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001.
There’s just one fly in this ointment: the students seem to hate it.
Picking up bad vibrations
Although a number of NY Times readers have posted comments wondering, in effect, where this kind of thing was when they were struggling through a boring lecture course 20 years ago, the comments from students themselves are overwhelmingly negative. They point out that a hefty chunk of students’ grades in TEAL come from attendance, so it’s not surprising that both grades and attendance have jumped.
As for the “personal response clickers” that allow students to beam their answers to a central computer, “Most students would rather hurl them into the Charles River,” says one recent graduate. They’re also expensive: although a $2.5 m donation paid for the course’s initial IT outlay, students still have to shell out $90 for their own personal gizmos on top of textbook costs. Many complain that the room layout means they can hardly hear the professor, and one even says that in order to learn the material properly, they’ve turned to downloading old-style lectures off YouTube.
Plus, the course is an awful lot of work: up to 21 hours a week to do all the homework assignments, quizzes, online assessments, lectures and office hours required for this single course (MIT students typically take four courses a term, plus labs).
Is this really the future of physics education? Maybe all those absent engineers in my lecture course nine years ago were on to something…