June 30, 2016
If it were up to Stanford University physics professor and
Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman, the days of college students sitting in lecture
halls while they absentmindedly jot down notes would be relegated to the
dustbin of history.
Wieman, who is also a professor in Stanford’s Graduate School
of Education, has spent decades using the scientific method to determine the
best ways to educate students, finding that lectures are an ineffective
technique for teaching. Instead he promotes “active learning,” in which
students participate in group activities and work collaboratively to solve
problems under the watchful eye of the instructor.
“I and people like me over the past few decades have been doing
scientific studies about teaching and learning, where you do controlled
experiments and you see what gives the best outcomes,” Wieman said. “We’ve been
able to identify that there are much more effective ways to teach than what are
being used in most of the college and university science classrooms. ”For his dedication to research, development, and advocacy of
evidence-based educational approaches, the Johannes Gutenberg University of
Mainz in Germany in May awarded Wieman with its international Gutenberg Teaching Award
for 2016, an honor that comes with a brief guest professorship to the college
as well as €10,000.
The award added to a long list of recognitions for the 1973
Hertz Fellow. Wieman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 for his work in
co-creating the Bose-Einstein condensate, a fourth state of matter in which
subatomic atoms are cooled to near-absolute zero. The Nobel Prize, he said,
gave him “unjustified credibility” to discuss the teaching methods he has honed
with over 25 years of research and as an instructor at the University of Michigan,
the University of Colorado, the University of British Columbia, and Stanford.
From 2010-2012, he advised President Obama as associate director for science in
the White House Office of
Science and Technology.
Wieman has become a champion for active learning, where the
instructor acts like an athletic coach, designing good practice tasks,
observing the students as they practice, and giving them feedback. He
incorporates active learning in his own physics classrooms at Stanford, where
they have been enthusiastically received.
Students in Wieman’s courses are typically given a short
reading assignment prior to class, quizzed on it, and are handed a practice
problem to work on in class. While they solve it, mostly working together in
small groups, the instructor walks around the class like a coach, observing,
intervening when necessary, and giving feedback on how they’re doing. Every
five to ten minutes, they’re brought back together to make sure everyone
understands the concept, and then given a more difficult problem.
“They’re thinking all the time, and they’re getting feedback
very immediately through their interactions with the other students or with the
instructor helping them to improve their thinking,” Wieman said. “You have to
make sure the students are practicing the thinking you want them to learn. If
it’s science, you think about how scientists think about the topic. How do they
use these ideas to solve problems?”
Universities, Wieman said, should recognize teaching as an
expertise, and encourage the use of the techniques that the research shows are
most effective. Wieman said schools should be keeping track of what methods are
being used in their classrooms and rewarding faculty for using the practices
that research shows are most effective.
Likewise, instructors need to not only understand their
subject, but also how learning works, treating it as a scholarly area. Active
learning, he said, not only engages students, but also puts the instructor in a
better position to understand what’s going on in the students’ minds.
“If universities simply adopted these tested best
practices, we would make big
improvements in how much students are learning and reducing how many students
are failing or dropping out,” Wieman said. “That’s an opportunity our country
ought to take advantage of.”
Wieman is making progress in spreading active learning at
Stanford. In the last year, Wieman said, the physics department has converted
about a third of its classes for undergraduate physics majors to the active
learning technique. The change, he said, has resulted in dramatically higher
attendance, and in students, a great degree of positive enthusiasm. By
implementing the active learning model nationwide, Wieman is convinced the U.S.
could someday set the gold standard in STEM education.
“What I’d hope to see in 10 years is that
the kind of teaching I talk about and we have data on, would be completely the
norm in the U.S. (A professor) wouldn’t think to walk in and talk for an hour
while students just sat and listened to them,” Wieman said. “This can happen,
and if it does, we will lead the world in STEM education. There’s no question
Gutenberg Teaching Award will be presented to Wieman at Gutenberg University in
the spring of 2017, when he visits to assume the post of a guest professorship.