Nobel winner questions lecture's value

Wieman says students don't use brains in standard lectures

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Nobel-prize winning physicist Dr. Carl Wieman hopes to teach universities how to teach scientific subjects.

Basing his work on past research that shows the inefficacy of lectures in helping students learn, Dr. Wieman is embarking on a campaign to improve the pedagogical methods of university education.

“In the standard lecture, [students] are not using their brains. This is clear from research, [including] studies involving brain-scanning,” he said.

The standard lecture to which Dr. Wieman refers is the one-to-many lecture, where students in large classes are essentially passive recipients of information imparted by instructors. Wieman said his idea is that without being engaged, students will not learn as much as they can.

“Educating is more than just putting information into the brain " if students don’t engage, learning is not happening,” Wieman added.

Tom Haffie with Teaching and Learning Services at Western agrees with the idea.

“Inviting students to think about their class can help people learn in the room, but students need to keep looking outside of the lecture,” he said.

Haffie compared learning to a gym workout. “No one is going to get stronger by watching other people lift weights in the gym " you have to do it for yourself.

“Learning is a very personal thing.”

Dr. Wieman explained several techniques could provide this engaging environment.

“One technique is to have students do small assignments before class, preparing them ahead of time, to be discussed in small groups. It could involve the use of clickers, giving teachers the ability to gauge their students’ understanding.”

Ali Haider, a third-year business management and organizational studies student, liked the concept of contributing in a smaller environment.

“If you’re contributing, you can get straight feedback,” he said.

Zach Armstrong, a fourth-year honors genetics student, agreed with Wieman’s intention, but expressed some reservations about how engaging students in large classes will work.

“Having group discussion in a first-year biology course is simply impossible. However, upper year classes should definitely be taught in a more ‘how-to-think’ manner, rather than ‘what-to-think,’” he said.

“You would have to enforce participation marks ... the best way to test people is one-on-one or in smaller groups with oral tests instead of written tests,” Nathalie Diaz, a fourth-year kinesiology student said.

All agreed the role of teachers today has changed from one that merely imparts information to one that provides students with an intellectually stimulating environment.

Quoting Socrates, Haffie summed up the general reservation against passive lecturing: “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

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