Hertz Fellow and Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman Wins International Teaching Award for “Active Learning" Model

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 about it.”

The 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.