The Death of the Lecture Hall

With the advent of MOOC’s and other technological means of beaming non-interactive lectures to students, does it make any sense to spend scarce public resources building new $5 million 500-seat lecture halls at state-supported universities?  Would any self-respecting state legislator vote to support such an expenditure?

Instead of simply settling for the obvious answer of “obviously not” for both questions, let’s examine the issue a little more carefully.

The traditional lecture class consists of students sitting passively and (if they care to) taking notes while a more-or-less distant lecturer having more-or-less charisma talks at them for 50 minutes or more.  Those few of us who were successful in lecture classes as students were able to dig into class material either on our own (reading and in the case of quantitative classes problem-solving) or with small groups of students that we arranged.   Assessments of student learning consist of periodic quizzes or exams that can consist of long answer questions (if there is an army of instructors or teaching assistants who find a way to grade uniformly) or multiple choice questions (which solve the problem of uniformity in grading but can limit the scope of the assessment).

The traditional lecture class would continue to be fine if our goal was to educate only a few percent of students for leadership careers like those in engineering and the physical sciences.  But if we are serious about making these careers available to students from a broader range of backgrounds, then we must dramatically improve the opportunities to learn challenging subjects.

In physics, it’s been demonstrated that student learning gains in classrooms where interactive activities are emphasized (such as the SCALE-UP classes we teach at FSU under the brand name “Studio Physics”) deliver student learning gains that are roughly double those in traditional lecture classes.  This is not an incremental improvement – it’s double.

But some of the features of a SCALE-UP class can be exported to a lecture hall physical environment.  The Peer Instruction program developed at Harvard uses carefully scripted group exercises that are performed during lecture class periods and clicker technology to capture the learning enhancements that SCALE-UP delivers.  Peer Instruction is being implemented this semester in one of FSU’s lecture-based introductory physics courses on a trial basis.  It’s worth noting that while the Harvard Physics Department has cast its lot with the lecture hall-based Peer Instruction, their neighbors across town at MIT have adopted a variation on SCALE-UP for their introductory physics courses.

Peer Instruction is not the only physics curriculum package intended to introduce extensive interactivity to a physical lecture hall environment.  smartPhysics, developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, won a major award from the American Physical Society last year.

However, one can imagine that a basic MOOC model – in which a “great professor” delivers golden lectures over the internet in a way that allows a student to replay the lectures or sections of a lecture – would be an improvement over the traditional lecture class, in which the quality of the speaker/instructor is hit-or-miss and the presentation doesn’t have a “rewind” button built in.

Improving the learning gains in a lecture class isn’t as easy as including a few “clicker questions” in which students respond to rudimentary multiple choice questions posed by the lecturer during the lecture to make sure the students are listening.  The development of Peer Instruction took years, and the interactivity of Peer Instruction classes is intense.

In fact, FSU’s Registrar, Kim Barber, demonstrated the futility of poorly executed clicker questions in her doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013.  Her study of large lecture (400 student) macroeconomics classes at FSU failed to find any student learning advantage – or even any improvement in student attitudes – resulting from the use of clicker questions over an unenhanced traditional lecture class that didn’t use clicker questions.

As FSU and the State University System sift through a priority-setting exercise and planning processes for various academic facilities under Florida’s tight funding constraints, facility planners should keep in mind that lecture halls are either useless warehouses for students or at best awkward substitutes for purpose-built interactive learning facilities.  And they should stop building lecture halls.  Forever.


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The frustration and promise of virtual education: We must do better than we’re doing, but online courses could short-circuit the push to improve – or lead it

Redefinedonline today posted about a study showing that virtual school courses – specifically those from Florida Virtual School – are as effective as classes in brick-and-mortar schools.

I am not writing to dispute that finding.

Instead, I’m writing to say that at least in the subjects I address on this blog – math and science – we have to do better than we’re doing in brick-and-mortar schools.  And that there is a danger that in falling back on virtual education we will lose sight of the need to improve.

Both the study and the post emphasized one of the obvious advantages of virtual schooling – access to courses that would otherwise not be available.  Certainly in my field (physics) and my state (Florida) this is a concern.  I received data from the Florida Department of Education yesterday showing that of the state’s 67 schools districts, 12 (all rural) did not offer physics at all in 2013-2014.

But the students who take the standard physics or honors physics courses in Florida’s high schools aren’t learning much of anything.  My own pretesting of students in my courses demonstrates that the physics understanding of incoming engineering and science majors who have taken a standard or honors physics course in a Florida high school is nearly indistinguishable from the level of understanding of students who haven’t taken any high school physics.  And that level is zero (random answers on my multiple choice pretest).

I have recurring nightmares about a conversation I had with a few high-ranking Florida education officials last year.  I was asked to record my lectures so they could be beamed into rural physics classrooms, thus solving the lack of physics courses in rural districts.  Here’s a hint about my response:  I don’t lecture in my classroom – at least not for more than a few minutes at a time.

Here’s another hint – a picture of my classroom:

Class PanoramaThis is a classroom in which learning gains are more than double those typical of a traditional lecture class, which is how the vast majority of physics instruction takes place in Florida high schools.  The model shown in the picture above is just as effective in a high school classroom (see, for example, Bishop Moore High School) as it is at the introductory college level.

The danger of the move to virtual education is that we will decide that recording lectures or adopting other didactic practices in a virtual environment solves all of the problems of the science and engineering pipeline, and we will lose sight of the fact that our instructional practices in physics (and chemistry, and math) need a complete overhaul – in both virtual and brick-and-mortar environments.

Virtual instruction could, in fact, lead the way toward improving student understanding in science and math.  There are hints of progress in virtual science learning being made by some of the world’s leading educators and educational researchers.  But continued progress in this area will requires hard work by experts in learning and investments and patience from policy-makers.  In case you’re wondering, it’s the policy-makers I’m worried about.  Taking the easy way out by simply adopting ineffective but cheap instructional practices may be too tempting for our leaders to resist.

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Reminder for policy makers: Calculus and physics are key ingredients in the making of an engineer (and even a computer scientist)

Over the weekend, I became aware of a recent effort in Congress to make a big push for AP courses in engineering and computer science.  This is a fine thing, but without the basics – math and physics – this is like having the icing without the cake.

Every engineering major needs to know physics and calculus – those are the gateway courses to engineering careers.  A bachelor’s degree in computer science requires physics and calculus.  I’m puzzled that our engineering and computer science colleagues who are lobbying Congress don’t understand that we should all be working together to promote a high school pipeline course sequence that includes calculus, computer science, engineering and physics – all of them.  Promoting computer science and engineering without promoting calculus and physics is just, well, dumb.

What’s needed is a real strategy for promoting careers in computer science, engineering, and the physical sciences, especially among young women and underrepresented minorities.  That strategy needs to start in middle school and ensure that the entire top 35% of students (roughly the number that takes Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before in Florida – and it’s probably nationally representative) graduates from high school with AP courses in calculus, computer science, engineering and physics.

The piecemeal approach that the lobbyists for engineering and computer science education seem to be taking on this is just, well, I said it above and will not say it again.

I’ll add some numbers here to provide some perspective.  They should all be compared to the 35% number of students who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before.

About 4% of high school grads have passed the exam for the first AP Calculus course, Calculus AB.  If a student takes Algebra 1 in 8th grade and follows the standard math sequence (Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus) then AP Calculus AB is the senior year math course.  This 4% number is pathetic.

Less than 2% of high school grads have passed an AP Physics exam.  That should dramatically increase this year with the introduction of the new AP Physics courses.  The first, AP Physics 1, is designed to replace the traditional high school physics course, which has been taken by roughly 23% of American high school grads.  While the effectiveness of the traditional physics course in many high schools is questionable, the new AP course incorporates elements that may significantly enhance student learning.

The US is badly undersubscribed in AP calculus and physics courses already.  Those are obstacles to growing the engineering, computer science and physical science workforce that need to be addressed along with the need to implement an AP engineering course and expand the AP computer science course.


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Is UCF really a great university for minority students?

According to the magazine Diverse:  Issues in Higher Education (as reported by School Zone), the University of Central Florida ranked 12th in the nation for awarding degrees to minority students.  In particular, Diverse ranked UCF 8th in the numbers of African-American and Hispanic students earning degrees.

I pulled up numbers from the Florida Board of Governors using the Interactive University Database to see whether UCF is really doing a better job than the entire State University System (SUS) at graduating African-American and Hispanic students.  In particular, I compared UCF and the SUS by examining the percentages of bachelors’ degrees awarded to African-American and Hispanic students – both for all fields and for the most marketable degrees (engineering, computer fields and physical sciences).

The bottom line is that UCF awards a smaller percentage of its bachelors’ degrees to African-Americans and Hispanics than the SUS in all the categories I examined.

In 2012-13, UCF awarded 9.5% of its bachelors’ degrees to African-American students, while the corresponding number for the entire SUS was 12.1%.  Hispanic students received 18.1% of UCF’s bachelors’ degrees – the SUS number was 22.8%.

The percentages for engineering, computer fields and physical sciences all followed the same pattern, although UCF seems particularly weak in educating African-American students in computer fields.

The reason UCF graduates so many African-American and Hispanic students is because…it’s so darn HUGE (60,000 students) and not because it is doing anything particularly effective for its minority students.



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AP in Florida: Strong in English, social sciences and Spanish; just average in calculus and science

Paul Cottle:

This morning’s article in the Orlando Sentinel on AP and SAT scores said that Florida is ranked 8th in the nation for the percentage of high school grads having passed at least one AP test. While the state’s students perform well on AP exams in English, social sciences and Spanish, they are only average in calculus and science (as demonstrated in the attached post from April). It’s worth noting that Florida is much farther behind the national average in the math SAT (Florida class of 2014 average of 485 vs. the national 2013 average of 514) than it is in critical reading (Florida class of 2014 average of 491 vs. national class of 2013 average of 496). Reading is a high priority in Florida, and math is not (along with science). Both AP and SAT scores bear that out.

Originally posted on Bridge to Tomorrow:

Here is a list of percentages of 2013 high school graduates in Florida and the US earning scores of 3 or better on individual AP examinations from the 2014 AP Report to the Nation.  The higher percentage (Florida or US) is highlighted.  The results are sorted into the same categories used in the AP report.

Math and Science

Subject               Florida           US

Biology                2.39%            2.99%

Calculus AB       4.22%            4.27%

Calculus BC        1.81%            2.08%

Chemistry           1.59%            1.94%

Computer Sci    0.29%            0.47%

Environ Sci        3.48% …

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Discussions of higher education policy must address differences between disciplines

A number of years ago, a young woman who was in the fall semester of her third year as an undergraduate physics major decided to change her plan from attending graduate school in physics and pursuing a career in scientific research to working in science policy, starting with a graduate program in that field.  So she figured out how complete a second major in political science in three semesters while also finishing up her upper division physics coursework.  She blew through the political science courses with excellent grades and completed an Honors Thesis in science policy while also successfully dealing with the challenges of the third and fourth year physics courses.  She was admitted to a first-rate graduate program in science policy and – last I heard – was employed in that field.

I was reflecting on this student’s experience after listening to and talking with several experts in higher education policy this week.  Perhaps I missed it, but in their comments about higher education none of these experts acknowledged how different the demands on students are in different areas of study.  The young woman who ended up in science policy had probably become interested in science as a middle schooler.  She took algebra in middle school and had followed through with more algebra, geometry, precalculus and calculus in high school.  Her final decision to major in physics in college was inspired by the woman who was her high school physics teacher – someone I met later who was personable and who obviously built deep relationships with her students.  In middle and high school, this student developed the characteristics and discipline necessary for anyone to succeed in college, as well as the “college-ready” basic skills like reading comprehension and writing proficiency (in addition to the college-ready algebra level she achieved early in her high school career).  But on top of that, this aspiring physics major had to master advanced math and science skills that relatively few college-bound high school students bother with.

For this student, the bachelor’s degree in physics came as the result of a ten- or eleven-year program of concentrated effort in math and science courses and healthy doses of inspiration and mentoring from a few dozen gifted instructors.

Her successful and rapid run through the political science program was an afterthought.

After the higher education forum I attended this week, three statements made by higher ed experts that ignored the very different demands on students in different college majors stuck with me.

One was this:  Students should be able – and perhaps encouraged – to pursue their higher education a few years at a time instead of running straight through in four years (for a bachelor’s degree) or more (for a graduate degree).  This probably works fine in studio art (an area of study with which I have more than a little familiarity).  But it doesn’t work fine in engineering or the physical sciences, two sets of college majors which are “vertical” in the sense that math and science skills build in long sequences of prerequisites.  If you walk away from math for a year, it’s a tremendous challenge to rebuild your math fitness.  Some students who try to do it don’t succeed.  Take a gap year after high school, then a five-year hiatus two years into your undergraduate program?  I really don’t advise it.

How about this one?  The higher education problems of white students have been solved.  We should now be totally focused on the issue of African-American and Hispanic students.  I’ll agree this far – we should be focused on the issue of the success of African-American and Hispanic students.  In fact, the underrepresentation of students from these groups is particularly severe in engineering and physical sciences.  And since many of the economic leaders of the 21st century will come from these fields, it is crucially important that the underrepresentation of students from these groups be addressed in a significant way.

But to stop at this racial boundary would be to deny another enormous disparity in computer science, engineering and physical sciences – the shortage of women in these fields.  Only about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in these fields – both in Florida and nationally – are awarded to women.  That’s a shortage of white women as well as minority women.  Women like the student who steered into a science policy degree after earning a bachelor’s degree with a double major in physics and political science.  Drawing a circle around racial achievement gaps in higher education and declaring that to be the only important issue in higher education is shortsighted and, well, ignorant (and maybe willfully so).

Finally, try this claim on for size:  If we would only stop pursuing the magic of prestige in higher education, we could cap the cost of a bachelor’s degree and the crisis in college and university finances would be solved.  That might be true in sociology, economics or political science – the fields in which most analysts who come up with these pronouncements were trained.  But it’s not even close to true in computer science, engineering or the physical sciences – careers we are trying to make accessible to the entire top quartile or top third of students through the use of research-based pedagogies and technological tools (to say nothing of the pricey equipment that they will use in their careers and on which they need to cut their teeth during their undergraduate years).  Effective education in computer science, engineering and the physical sciences costs money.  If we want more students to enter these fields, that will cost more money.

If we as a society are serious about dramatically expanding opportunities in the leadership fields of the 21st century – computer science, engineering and the physical sciences – then we must stop pretending that all higher education is the same.  Instead, we have to confront the challenges of these fields and make the investments necessary for more students from all backgrounds to succeed in them.

And perhaps the higher ed gurus should talk with those of us trying to do the work of educating these future technological leaders.  They might learn something.

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New Presidential Scholar in Physics starts cutting-edge research less than a month after his high school graduation

Paul Cottle:

Educational researchers often cite the importance of early research experiences. Here is an example of a very early research experience. But it’s worth noting that we try to get our undergraduate physics majors involved in research by the second year. See the for vignettes about more undergraduate researchers.

Originally posted on Future Physicists of Florida:

On Tuesday, June 3, Jorge Gonzalez was handed his high school diploma in the graduation ceremony for Miami Senior High School.

Less than three weeks later – on Monday, June 23 – Jorge was welcomed as a new undergraduate researcher at FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.


Jorge is one of two physics majors in FSU’s new class of Presidential Scholars (the other is Winter Park’s Gregory Seel – you can meet him here).

Jorge became interested in physics as a career when he took Honors Physics in 11th grade with Miami Senior High teacher Javier Rivera.  Jorge’s scientific interests are broad – ranging from condensed matter physics (on which he works at the Magnet Lab) to general relativity.  He also expresses interest in the next generation of propulsion systems for space travel – ion propulsion drives.

Jorge’s summer research was performed under the guidance of Magnet Lab Research…

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