A recent study from researchers Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman suggests that the Methuselah of instructional technologies, the venerable broadcast lecture, might finally be showing signs of going the way of geocentricity and the four humors. Applying methods taken from the theory of “deliberate practice” by psychologist Anders Ericsson, the research team introduced a more interactive, discussion-based and assessment-oriented approach to a physics class that strongly implies major improvements to science and engineering instruction in general.
The setting for the study involves two groups of electromagnetics students (control: 267; test: 271) wherein both were given the same learning objectives and enjoyed the same pedagogical approach (but not the same instructors) for the first 11 weeks of instruction. On week 12, Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have limited teaching experience) jumped into the fray and according to the BPS Research Digest lead the test group utilizing “…discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback.” And, what is especially important to note here: there was no formal lecturing. According to the researchers the object of the game was:
“…to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at ‘thinking scientifically’ in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others.”
In contrast to the test group, the control group went on learning the same material in the normal (typically passive) fashion epitomized by classroom lectures for probably the last 900 years. The students, however, apparently noticed a difference. As quoted in the BPS review:
“Student engagement (measured by trained observers) and attendance in the control group was unchanged in week 12 compared with earlier weeks. In the intervention group, attendance rose by 20 per cent and engagement nearly doubled.“
The critic or cynic might assert that the presenters were putting on a better show in the test case. What about student performance? On the first day of class after week 12 both groups were tested on what they had learned the previous week. In addition, as part of the preparation for the test, both groups were given all the materials used by the intervention group, i.e., the clicker questions, group activities and problem sets, and exercise solutions. The results are as striking as the jump in student engagement:
The non-lecture intervention group averaged 74 percent correct while the control group averaged 41 percent. Factoring out random guessing, the intervention group did twice as well as the traditional lecture students (the effect size being on the order of 2.5 standard deviations!). Not to be downplayed, student reviews rated the non-lecture approach very positively. Ninety percent said they enjoyed the process.
Jeffrey Mervis writing for the AAAS ScienceNow magazine quotes Wieman as saying:
“ ‘It’s almost certainly the case that lectures have been ineffective for centuries. But now we’ve figured out a better way to teach’ that makes students an active participant in the process, Wieman says. Cognitive scientists have found that ‘learning only happens when you have this intense engagement,’ he adds. ‘It seems to be a property of the human brain.’ ” – Jeffrey Mervis, A Better Way to Teach?
Given the novelty of the technique and the overt nature of the study there has been some criticism of the results based on the Hawthorne Effect. The research team discounts this criticism on the basis that the intervention only occupied a small percentage of the students’ overall daily learning activities. Drilling a little deeper, psychology professor Daniel Willingham (as recounted in Carey below) cautioned that the study might not have been designed well enough to discern which of the factors introduced in the new classroom style account for the gains in student performance and to what degree.
In what might be one of the clearest victories for proponents of the Inverted Classroom the research team is optimistic of the result and reckons it can be generalized to a wide range of post-secondary courses. No doubt further studies can be expected. The study in question is supported by a $12 million dollar program to investigate new methods to enhance science instruction using research-backed methods.
Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783
Carey, Benedict (2011). Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning
Mervis, Jeffrey (2011). A Better Way to Teach?
Dwyer, Liz (2011). Research Proves College Lectures Need to Go the Way of the Dinosaur
Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice
The Inverted Classroom