Teaching methods in science from the dark ages

Katarzyna discusses the most common ways learning can be discouraged and the merits of interactive engagement over traditional teaching methods


“Students learn at different rates and in varying ways and hence accepting an answer too quickly results in terminating their thought process.”

Most lecturers we come across aspire to be good teachers and want their students to learn, and TCD claims to nurture the tradition of scholarship and excellence. Unfortunately, this cannot be fulfilled without keeping up with the research into teaching methods. In fact, many academics from all around the world completely ignore the scientific method when it comes to planning and delivering their lectures. It is time to address this problem in academia and advocate for changes to take place.   

Discouraging Learning

Douglas Duncan and Amy Singel Southon wrote a paper on “Six ways to Discourage Learning” which list six teaching practices that should be avoided. The first way of discouraging learning they discuss is  “Insufficient Wait-Time”. After the instructor asks a question, he or she should wait more than just a few seconds before repeating, accepting an answer or answering it him or herself. Students should be given enough time to think and formulate and intelligent response otherwise their information processing and analysis is cut-off.

The article deems the act of accepting a correct answer too quickly “Rapid reward”, which favours students who can think faster and hence does not allow the slower students to finish processing the information. Students learn at different rates and in varying ways and hence accepting an answer too quickly results in terminating their thought process.

This can result in frustration and loss of interest by those students. It is important that the instructor makes sure all students can hear them and that any such quiet answers are repeated to keep all students in the loop. Then the authors discuss the problem of the “Programmed Answer”; Here the answer to a question is contained in the question. Posing such questions deprive the students from expressing their own thoughts. Such practice kills the opportunity of opening up a wide variety of possible ideas. “Non-specific feedback questions” were another type of a very common discouraging teaching practice.

Questions such as “Does anyone have any questions?” or “Does everybody see how I got the answer?” are that are supposed to give the instructor an idea of the student’s understanding of the teaching material, but actually don’t. Such non-specific questions can fail to provide feedback because students can feel too intimidated or are too confused to put together a question that could help them. The next issue raised in the paper is called “The Teacher’s Ego-stroking and Classroom Climate”. Consider a situation where the instructor says “Since I have explained this several times already, you should all know…” or “It is trivial to show” or says that something “should be clear by now”.

Such statements intimidate the students instead of making them feel comfortable with trying out ideas and to be right as well as wrong. Students are more likely to remember concepts that they have figured out themselves, rather than being simply told what the concept is. Interrupting and controlling students discourages them from engaging in the class. The last way to discourage learning discussed in the paper is the “Fixation at a low-level of Questioning”.

Questions posed by instructors should guide the student’s thinking and test their understanding. However, often the questions get stuck at the information level, instead of progressing onto questions that would interrelate material, sequence the student’s thoughts and help analyse the data. Fixing the questions at a low level discourage the development of more complex intellectual concepts. The authors highlight that it is important that instructors are conscious of how they are structuring their questions to avoid the fixation at the informational-level of thinking.

Interactive engagement vs traditional methods

Richard Hake conducted a study to compare interactive engagement to traditional teaching and published his results in a paper entitled “Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses”. In the paper he defines interactive engagement methods as “those designed at least in part to promote conceptual understanding through interactive engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors”.

This means that interactive engagement is all about questioning and challenging students to make them think and figure things out for themselves. The students interact with each other to discuss their opinions and brainstorm ideas. The lecturer becomes the person who facilitates learning, not simply transfers the knowledge to the students. Hake defined traditional methods as “those reported by instructors to make little or no use of IE methods, relying primarily on passive-student lectures, recipe labs, and algorithmic problem exams”.

The results showed that the best traditional lecturer has normalised learning gains of only 23% and that the worst interactive engagement teaching is as good as the best traditional. This was an eye-opener for many academics. However, not many have actually done anything about it. One lecturer who did question his teaching methods after reading this paper was Prof. Eric Mazur.

Peer instruction

Dr. Eric Mazur

Dr. Eric Mazur

Peer instruction is one of the interacting engagement techniques that can be used to address some of the discouraging practices outlined above. Prof. Eric Mazur teaches physics at Harvard University. He is well known for his development of interactive engagement in his lectures through peer instruction. Peer instruction is based on six concepts: question, thinking, individual answer, peer discussion, revised/group answer and explanation. Firstly, the instructor makes sure that every student understands what the question is about. Next, students are given enough time to think and formulate their answers. The instructor then asks the students to tell him/her their answers by voting using clickers or some other way.

Usually not every student has chosen the correct answer. Then the students are asked to speak to their neighbour and convince each other that their answer is correct. This part is where the magic happens. There is chaos in the room as all students turn to each other and forget the instructor’s presence in the room. They share their points of view with one another and why they think their answer is correct. The idea is that if one student has the right answer and the other does not, the one with the wrong answer will hear the other’s correct explanation and realise that they were wrong. After some time, the instructor recaptures the attention of the students and ask them to vote again. The second vote usually results in many more students voting for the correct answer. The process is finished with the instructor’s explanation of the answer to the question. This technique is proven to be very effective in increasing the student gains in Prof. Mazur’s class as well as many others around America.

Implementing new methods

Often departments in scientific disciplines feel they should find their own solutions to the problems in education. Also, lecturers often wish to have absolute freedom in designing their lectures and how to deliver them. Therefore, a consensus among science educators at universities is difficult to establish. Edward Redish puts it well in his paper entitled “Building a science of teaching physics” by saying that the physicists “continue to reinvent the flat tire” instead of building “a tightly interacting community to purge wishful thinking and build an accurate and robust community map”.

This of course applies to all scientific disciplines, not just physics. It seems that many instructors ignore research into scientific education. If instructors receive good reviews from students at the end of the year and students do well on their exam, then the job is considered well done. This is exactly what Prof. Eric Mazur thought about his teaching before he realised a very important fact; most academics consider teaching to be the transfer of knowledge from instructor to students. The exams are testing this knowledge and students who remember the material well can do very well on the exam.

However, when the students are asked conceptual-based questions on an exam most of those taught by traditional methods will not do well. This is because such questions test understanding not memory and traditional teaching is not good at improving student’s understanding. Implementing simple techniques such as peer instruction could fix this. However, if students are used to coming to lectures to simply be told what they need to know and then leaving, they may not adapt easily to the new teaching style. Therefore it is important that all lecturers reach a consensus together and employ techniques such as peer-instruction to get students more comfortable with it.