A Reflection on a Misconception – Martin Smith

Last week while I was judging at a science fair I had a motivating conversation with a small group of lecturers and fellow graduate students.  We were sharing our experiences in teaching science when I was surprised that the others believed it near impossible to interactively teach a large class of undergraduate students.  It made me ask how many other instructors share this misconception.  Motivated by this conversation, I wanted to share some recent evidence that you can engage large classes and some evidence that it works. 

It was only a coincidence that I came across an article on engaging large classes as I perused the May 14th edition of The Economist.  The article profiled an experiment to increase student learning on a large class of 850 unsuspecting introductory physics students.  In the experiment, the observers broke the students up into two groups.  The first group was taught in the traditional lecturing style, while the second group was broken up into small interactive groups.  In these small experimental groups the students were assigned pre-class readings to familiarize themselves with the material.  Then, rather than lecturing during class these students were given problems and asked to solve them.  This makes the instructor’s main role to facilitate the interaction between students who were busy solving these own problems.  Then after the two groups finished the defined curriculum they were given a test (not for credit) to determine if the non-traditional style had an effect.  The results were overwhelming!  The experimental group had scored significantly better on the test than the control group.   In fact, the claim has been made that the improvement is the largest that has been observed in this type of study.  The investigators argue that focussing teaching time on getting students to analyze problems can increase the effectiveness of the classic chalk-and-talk mentality.  As a disclaimer, the test was given immediately after the new method was tried so the increase may have been larger than one observed during a final exam.  Also, critics often argue that anytime you suddenly change how students learn their performance will increase simply because you are forcing them to adapt (this is an application of the Hawthorne effect).  Personally, I think the results are promising regardless of the mechanism of action.  Whether they are working because students are solving problems or because you are messing with their habits, the result is that students learn better. 

When I think back to my days in undergraduate physics class, it was only when I solved the assigned problem sets did I fully grasp the material.  Hopefully, studies like this one performed by Deslauriers et al. in Science will help dissuade people from the common misconception that you cannot engage large classes (1).

If you are not convinced, that’s OK.  Regardless of your academic background and whether you believe the evidence presented in this study, my hope is that you will take a moment to reflect on your own teaching and how much effort you put into engaging your students.   If we can make the effort to incorporate interactive activities into our lecture I think that you will find that both student and teacher will get much more out of the learning experience!


(1) Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E. and Wieman, C., (2011) Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332, 6031, pp 862-864


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