Can large introductory science courses teach students to learn effectively?

Aug 13, 2014 by Diana Lutz
Can large introductory science courses teach students to learn effectively?
If a stone aboard a boat is dropped in the water, does the level of the water rise, sink or stay the same? An innovative physics course at Washington University coaxes students to reason their way through problems like this one instead of memorizing the answers. (See the end of article to verify your answer.) Credit: MONICA DUWEL/WUSTL

"Physics summer work, please help!!!," a post on Yahoo Answers begins. "I cant [sic] figure out how to do this anywhere!!! Best answer awarded [sic]? Need help immediately!!!!!"

Queries like this make people who love teaching science cringe. It's not that they think the are "cheating" by trying to Google the answer, but rather that they know students who ask this kind of question are learning nothing—and probably confirming a secret conviction that they're bad at science.

That attitude is one of the toughest obstacles science teachers face. It gathers speed in high school, when students often are defined as smart if they get the right answer quickly—by any means possible. In many cases, an introductory college science class is the last chance educators have to fix the perception that getting the answer is everything. Unfortunately, these are often large lecture classes that, research shows, drive steep attitudinal declines toward learning and problem solving in the sciences.

A three-year evaluation of an innovative Washington University in St. Louis course suggests the attitudinal decline is not inevitable. Offered by the Department of Physics in Arts & Sciences, "Active Physics" incorporates active-learning techniques, but still is taught to large classes.

The results, published in the July 2 issue of Physical Review Special Topics, show that the course has the expected benefits in conceptual learning and retains some, although not all, of the attitudinal benefits of small, inquiry-based courses.

Although results were mixed, "Active Physics" consistently outperformed traditional lecture courses in conceptual learning and in attitudes toward learning and problem solving, said Regina F. Frey, PhD, the Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education, who co-led the evaluation team.

"What's more, 'Active Physics' eliminates what is typically a big gender gap in attitudinal declines in traditional introductory physics courses," said Frey, who also is executive director of the university's Teaching Center and associate professor of chemistry in Arts & Sciences. "Women's attitudinal scores still decline in 'Active Physics,' but much less than they do in traditional lecture courses."

The bottom line is that active learning works for large classes, Frey said. "People like to say, 'Well, of course you can implement active learning if you have classes of 40 or 50 or with a specific instructor,'" she said. "But they're skeptical that it will work in larger classes. What the evaluation showed is that the gains hold in large classes taught by many instructors over a number of years—if the curriculum is implemented properly."

Getting students off the mental couch

Tom Bernatowicz, PhD, professor of physics, first introduced the "Active Physics" curriculum to a large introductory class in 2004. Over the next 10 years, other physics faculty began to teach the course to equally large classes, and it gradually displaced the sections of the lecture-based introductory course.

"Active Physics," a course based on the textbook "Six Ideas That Shaped Physics" by Thomas A. Moore of Pomona College, has its roots in the 1980s. That's when educators, dissatisfied with lecture courses, became interested in models of instruction that require students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Or, as Moore writes, "Physics is not a collection of facts to absorb, but rather a set of thinking skills requiring practice to master."

Every aspect of "Active Physics" is designed to nudge students to be more engaged in learning and to think more and memorize less. For example, both "Active Physics" and the lecture sections of introductory physics courses include a demonstration of Archimedes' principle (see illustration at top).

Students in "Active Physics" discuss what they think will happen before the demonstration, make a prediction and explain their reasoning to the class. Only once they have a stake in the outcome is the demonstration run. In the traditional lecture class, the instructor performs the demonstration without preamble, explaining the result.

"Active Physics" homework, revisions and in-class problems are similarly designed to nudge students to dig into the physics instead of letting it wash over them and to encourage them to try exploratory rather than rote learning. (For more about this course, see "Physics according to Bernatowicz.")

Losing the attitude

It seemed successful, but nobody knew for sure whether "Active Physics" was actually achieving the benefits of inquiry or active learning courses taught to much smaller classes.

But there was an opportunity to find out. The Office of the Provost had recently funded the Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning and Education (CIRCLE). Co-directors Frey and Mark A. McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, teamed up with physics lecturer K. Mairin Hynes, PhD, and other faculty to evaluate the program. This study compared the outcomes of students enrolled in "Active Physics" and the equivalent traditional lecture course for three consecutive academic years, from 2009-2012.

To assess how the courses changed attitudes, all of the students completed the Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science Survey (CLASS), a 42-item questionnaire that asks students to agree or disagree with statements about their attitudes toward physics and learning about physics.

The CLASS statements can be parsed in different ways to capture different aspects of student learning. The CIRCLE team defined two additional subsets of the statements that captured whether the students' learning approach was rote or conceptual and whether their problem-solving approach was algorithmic or concept-based.

Students were asked, for example, whether they agreed or disagreed with the following CLASS statement:

— "I do not spend more than five minutes stuck on a physics problem before giving up and seeking help from someone else."

"This statement is included because many students coming out of high school believe that physics, and to some extent chemistry, is all math, and they have learned to do the problems by rote," Frey said. "That is, if the problem is very similar to ones they've seen before, they can use the procedure they've learned.

"But if it is superficially different, they can't see the underlying concept, and therefore cannot solve it," she said. "Because they think they should be able to look at a problem and solve it right away, they get frustrated."

Another CLASS statement that is equally revealing:

— "In doing a physics problem, if my calculation gives a result very different from what I'd expect, I'd trust the calculation rather than going back through the problem."

"They really work on this misconception in 'Active Physics,'" Frey said. "The students must estimate the answer before they solve the problem, and once they solve the problem, they must say whether their answer is reasonable or not and why.

"Some students are naturally active learners," she said, "but many are not. So it is our job to teach them how to teach themselves rather than just passively waiting to be taught.

"If we want graduates who can really problem-solve, innovate, be creative and lead, we have to teach students to be active learners. It's that active and complex problem solving we're trying to bring back into introductory courses using techniques such as 'Active Physics,'" Frey said.

Explore further: Can students learn effective learning and problem solving techniques in large introductory science courses?

More information: ˙uʍop səoƃ ləʌəl ɹəʇɐʍ əɥʇ puɐ 'pɹɐoqɹəʌo uʍoɹɥʇ sı əuoʇs əɥʇ ɹəʇɟɐ pəɔɐldsıp sı ɹəʇɐʍ ssəl ˙əuoʇs əɥʇ ɟo əɯnloʌ əɥʇ uɐɥʇ ɹəʇɐəɹƃ sı əuoʇs əɥʇ ɟo ssɐɯ əɥʇ oʇ ʇuəlɐʌınbə ɹəʇɐʍ ɟo əɯnloʌ əɥʇ os ˙sʞuıs ʇı əsnɐɔəq ɹəʇɐʍ uɐɥʇ əsuəp əɹoɯ əq ʇsnɯ əuoʇs əɥʇ ¿ɹəʇɐəɹƃ sı əsəɥʇ ɟo ɥɔıɥʍ os ˙ɹəʇɐʍ uı əɯnloʌ uʍo s,ʇı ƃuıɔɐldsıp sı ʇı əpıs əɥʇ ɹəʌo uʍoɹɥʇ sı əuoʇs əɥʇ uəɥʍ ˙ɹəʇɐʍ ɟo ssɐɯ ʇuəlɐʌınbə uɐ ƃuıɔɐldsıp sı ʇı ʇɐoq əɥʇ uı sı əuoʇs əɥʇ uəɥʍ :ɹəʍsuɐ

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julianpenrod
1 / 5 (5) Aug 13, 2014
The same old garbage. When nature is so tamed that mistakes cause little repercussion and the majority so stupid things can blow up in their face and they wouldn't notice, you can pull any fraud and get away with it. More of the same machination to "justify" hiring teachers who don't know their subjects, who are only bed candy for administrators, the "teach yourself" "paradigm". It took mankind thousands of years just to come up with vectors with components, will kids sexting in class necessarily do that in a semester? Aboriginals don't sit a kid in a clearing with some sticks, sinew and unshaped flint and expect them to discover the bow and arrow for themselves! Just more screwing around by crooks in "education", facilitated by gullible parents afraid to admit they don't know enough to judge lies being told them and criminally complicit school boards skimming funds off tax money allocations for each new fraud to undo the damage of the previous fraud!
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (5) Aug 13, 2014
Get students together in small study groups (3-4 people max!) with weekly mandatory assignments. And give TOUGH assignments (Grade based on how the problem was approached...not neccessarily whether the correct numerical value was arrived at. In later life you have simulators for most any problem. It's more important know HOW to approach a problem than to be able to do simple adding up.)

That approach worked extremely well when I was at uni.

Nothing like peer pressure in a group where you can't hide behind others to get you to apply yourself.
tadchem
5 / 5 (2) Aug 13, 2014
The heart of "science" is the 'scientific method'.
The scientific method involves a set of processes, each applied to the results of a previous process.
Processes and methods are far easier to teach in a 'practical' environment (think "Laboratory") than in a 'theoretical' environment such as a lecture hall.
Supervised labs are ideal, but I learned much about pyrotechnics in an unsupervised setting.
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (2) Aug 13, 2014
These are the same attitudes that can make *good* QA/QC work almost impossible. 'We've twelve hours to 'pass' this material through to our Production Area.' Next thing, you're getting horse-meat in the beef mince, toxic adulterants in the milk powder...
Porgie
3 / 5 (2) Aug 14, 2014
Key word here is large. Science and math should be taught in smaller chunks to allow better coverage of fundamentals and allow time for better understanding. Too often the basic "simple stuff" to the teacher is glossed over only to leave too many students stranded as they move to more complicated areas where the fundamentals need to be applied. IF necessary taking it over is not the disaster it once was. Colleges need to make money, and rushing through these things is one area to profit. 2 Semesters them summer off for many with substitutes in for the tenured? A poor system. When will the student begin to come first?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Aug 15, 2014
Processes and methods are far easier to teach in a 'practical' environment (think "Laboratory")

I agree that the process can best be taught by applying it. But the theoretical knoweldge you need cannot be taught that way exclusivley (it would take way too long and is impossible in some cases - like math).
Lab work is expensive, and today most institutions don't have the money to provide more than the most cursory practical courses for students. They try to catch that with internships in the industry - but that setting is not conducive to scientific work.

I think this is one area where a little bit of investment in education systems would yield great benefits in terms of quality of graduates.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
Having been thru the educational system in many schools because I never had the money to go 'straight thru' and was too 'conservative' so hated to borrow money....I have kinda' seen it all! That said, one can never really teach physics without math except on a simple level like the density vs volume problem illustrated at the top. It takes a good stiff first semester course in calculus taught progressively and not 'randomly' in order to background an engineer/scientist student for a good physics college level physics course that contains concepts found in the calculus. I could go on about this a lot, but the bottom line is math skill. In any scientific discipline, there is no substitute for it.
Toiea
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
In any scientific discipline, there is no substitute for it
The math skill is the matter of mathematical courses, no math will teach you the physics or any other particular science.
Can large introductory science courses teach students to learn effectively
Of course not, no large group activity can teach the people the very individual activity.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2014
Many kids think like you Zeph, but sadly for them, they patrol the streets with squeegees.
Toiea
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
@TechnoCreed: The private schools with higher number of pupils per class are generally cheaper. Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn't apply to high schools and the consequences are undeniable: the contemporary students handle the mechanical stuffs which they can parrote with ease, but they didn't learn the individual and independent thinking. I'm dealing with products of contemporary educational system all the time here.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (3) Aug 17, 2014
the contemporary students handle the mechanical stuffs which they can parrote with ease, but they didn't learn the individual and independent thinking.
So what you are saying is that you have been home schooled? It would explain your peculiar view of science! It is sad for you because you do not seem to be unintelligent, but the lack of formal education shows. By the way, independent thinking is not something to be learned, it naturally happens in young adults and is a necessary step for success in post-secondary education... Having opinions does not mean forging your own laws of physics.
sdrfz
not rated yet Aug 17, 2014

The written problem description at the beginning of this story seems incomplete to me, since it does not explicitly say whether the stone sinks or floats on the water. All it says is that the stone is dropped overboard. Obviously there is a picture of a stone sinking in the water but it's not part of the written problem description.
Toiea
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
Having opinions does not mean forging your own laws of physics.
This is just a problem, you're all so half-informed, you're believing, I'm inventing my own laws here. For example, for stupid uninformed physicist the cold fusion is impossible, these clever ones will immediately propose some mechanism for it. The key difference here is the ability to keep a seemingly unrelated pieces of information in head and work with it in independent way at time. And this is just the ability, which is not trained at schools at all. The pupils are confronted with ready-to-serve informations only during whole their study. I'm facing here often the situation, when posters don't remember even the articles, where they twaddled before few months. For such a people a new informations are useless, because they forget their connection to these older ones at the same moment.
Uncle Ira
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
When nature is so tamed that mistakes cause little repercussion and the majority so stupid things can blow up in their face and they wouldn't notice, you can pull any fraud and get away with it. More of the same machination to "justify" hiring teachers who don't know their subjects, who are only bed candy for administrators, the "teach yourself" "paradigm". It took mankind thousands of years just to come up with vectors with components, will kids sexting in class necessarily do that in a semester? Aboriginals don't sit a kid in a clearing with some sticks, sinew and unshaped flint and expect them to discover the bow and arrow for themselves! Just more screwing around by crooks in "education", facilitated by gullible parents afraid to admit they don't know enough to judge lies being told them and criminally complicit school boards skimming funds off tax money allocations for each new fraud to undo the damage of the previous fraud!


Skippy you are one weird couyon you.
Toiea
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
What I'm presenting here is the example of work with emergent hyperdimensional informations, which are characteristics for contemporary stage of reality understanding. Such an informations are similar to holographic distributed model of consciousness, where no information exists at single place as a whole, but it's widespread and mixed with another pieces of information - well, like the picture observed through bumped glass. You can get the whole picture only with careful correlations of individual pieces of information each other and from the way, in which they react to change of conditions. The era of deterministic construction of models from reliable and stable facts is already over: now we should learn to work with indicia only - in similar way, like the people at the beginning of human history.
Toiea
1 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2014
Harry J. Lipkin: Who ordered theorists?:
I have no patience with social scientists, historians, and philosophers who insist that the "scientific method" is doing experiments to check somebody's theory. The best physics I have known was done by experimenters who ignored theorists completely and used their own intuitions to explore new domains where no one had looked before. No theorists had told them where and how to look

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