An electrical fire closed FSU’s Carothers Hall a week-and-a-half before the beginning of the fall semester, closing off access to two of the SCALE-UP classrooms in which my colleagues and I teach our Studio Physics classes. Through the heroic efforts of the university’s Facilities and IT staff, we were able to get back into our SCALE-UP classrooms for the second week of class.
Those of us teaching in the Carothers SCALE-UP classrooms were assigned by the university’s Registrar’s Office to teach the first week of classes in various lecture halls and seminar rooms around campus. My colleagues complied. I did not. Instead, I sent the students registered for my Studio Physics section this email:
Welcome to PHY 2048C Section 1!
As you know, our course is a first-semester calculus-based physics class for students majoring in fields like engineering and the physical, mathematical and computer sciences.
The course is taught in a studio style. The “interactive engagement” instruction we use is very effective in helping more students learn physics with greater understanding than traditional teaching methods.
I am a Professor in FSU’s Physics Department. I helped found FSU’s Studio Physics Program more than a decade ago.
We will be meeting in Room 315 of Carothers Hall, which is purpose-built for studio-style science instruction. As you may know, there was an electrical fire in Carothers on August 16. Repairs are underway, but the building will not be available for classes until the week of Labor Day.
The architecture of our room is so important to your learning that I have chosen to postpone the first day of class until Carothers 315 becomes available. Our first day of class will be Wednesday, September 4.
Why did I do this instead of complying with the instructions from the Registrar’s Office? Because the hardest part of my job teaching a first-semester Studio Physics class each fall is convincing students that this is the best – in fact really the only – way to learn physics with understanding. Starting my class in a lecture hall would have undermined that message.
A study recently published by physics education researchers at Harvard in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports my decision. The “Significance” box on the paper says this:
Despite active learning being recognized as a superior method of instruction in the classroom, a major recent survey found that most college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods. This article addresses the long-standing question of why students and faculty remain resistant to active learning. Comparing passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials, we find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning. Faculty who adopt active learning are encouraged to intervene and address this misperception, and we describe a successful example of such an intervention.
I’ve convinced myself (without hard data, though) that on the first day of class less than a quarter of my students believe that the studio instructional model is best for their learning. I’ve also convinced myself that by the end of the semester three-quarters of the class believes it. During the semester, I evangelize, cajole and listen, and sometimes even plead with my students to believe in what we are doing.
In the end, my students achieve an average normalized learning gain on the Force Concept Inventory that is twice the average for traditional lecture classes. They build acquaintances – and sometimes genuine friendships – with other students in the class. Some learn to work better in groups. Research demonstrates that while all students benefit from this studio model, women and black and Hispanic students who are often marginalized in engineering, computer science and physics particularly benefit from the model – in part because we can keep an eye on how students are interacting with each other and act when we see a problem.
The studio model is better for all of our students. It’s just that we generally have to keep working hard to convince our students of that.