The magic of evidence-based teaching, the myth of efficiency and the “butts-in-seats” model

Learning physics is critical for a wide range of careers, but both learning and teaching physics can be challenging and frustrating.  Fortunately, physics educators like myself can draw upon decades of tremendous research on how students learn physics and what strategies are effective in helping many students who would be unable to learn in traditional lecture courses.

Even though I was aware of this research early in my career as a physics educator, I stuck with traditional teaching methods for many years before I was willing to fully invest in what physics education researchers said would work better.  But when I finally started teaching in the ways these researchers said were best, the effect on the students was almost like magic.

My first class in FSU’s new “science studio” classroom (which many of my readers would recognize as a SCALE-UP room) was in 2008.  It was a physical science class for about 45 undergraduates (almost all women) who were preparing to be elementary school teachers.   I had my new classroom, which adopted a design developed by physics education researchers at North Carolina State University and which has since been adopted at more than 300 postsecondary institutions (including MIT and FAMU).  And I was using a curriculum developed especially for future elementary school teachers by another high-profile group of physics education researchers at the University of Washington.

On the first day of class, I asked each student to introduce themselves, talk about why she or he wanted to teach elementary school, and tell us about the science classes she or he had taken previously.  Almost every student said, “I’m not a math person and I’m not a science person.”

So we began, with the students making measurements and discussing questions prescribed by the curriculum.  After the students spent about a week doing this, the curriculum asked the students to summarize their measurements in the form of a mathematical equation.  I had sort of dreaded this moment after hearing each student denigrate their own math and science abilities on the first day of class.  But what happened with almost every group was remarkable.  Students wrote an equation because the curriculum called for it and before their preexisting fear of math could kick in and stop them.  Then they would call me over and say (with the words being almost identical every time), “This isn’t right, is it?”  And almost every time, I assured them that the equation was right, and I would welcome them to the world of “math and science people.”

My colleagues teaching physics courses for engineering and physical science majors in the same studio classroom would have a similarly magical experience.  Using materials developed by physics education researchers and the three-student groups facilitated by the classroom’s design, they immediately started achieving (and measuring) world-class student learning gains that were double what traditional lecture classes achieve.  Their success was noted in a paper written for the National Academy of Sciences by the researcher at North Carolina State University who had developed the classroom design.

The reason all of this is important is because we have reached a point in the higher education enterprise where the idea of “efficiency” is tightening its grip on instructional decisions.  We say we want more students to have opportunities to be engineers or scientists, but we refuse to widely adopt instructional techniques or tools that would enable the entire top quartile of students to learn science with the depth of understanding required to achieve these goals.  Instead, we complain that these effective teaching techniques aren’t efficient enough and we insist on sticking with the same old lecture model that really only serves the top few percent of students well.

Even if we take “efficiency” to mean the number of credit hours produced per dollar of instructor salary and square foot of instructional facility (the usual “butts-in-seats” model), the efficiency of our studio physics classes is not much lower than that of a traditional lecture class, which includes much more than just the lectures in which a single professor talks at 200-500 seats (which may or may not have students in them on any given day).  Those traditional lecture classes must also include “recitations”, which are weekly or twice-weekly meetings of 25-50 students with an instructor in which questions about homework problems are answered, and laboratories in which students spend three hours once a week performing recipe-driven experiments.  Shortly after we began our studio physics program in 2008, we analyzed the personnel costs of the studio and lecture models.  In terms of personnel dollars per student served, studio was cheaper.

But any reasonable definition of “efficiency” must include student learning gains.  After all, we wouldn’t shut down FSU’s College of Music because of the “inefficiency” of individual lessons in voice and instrumental performance.  Once you take into account that learning gains in studio classes are twice what they are in lecture classes (and multiply by two whatever credit hours-per-dollar metric you are using for your measurement of efficiency) then studio science becomes the best deal on campus.

The inefficiency of the lecture model for learning has practical implications.  Recent results out of MIT suggest that large-scale online courses yield student learning gains that are somewhat greater than those in a traditional physical lecture class (although still far behind those in fully interactive classroom environments like studio physics).  Any university leader who is considering building a new 500-seat lecture hall at $5,000-$10,000 per seat should carefully think about whether it would make more financial sense to pay a faculty member $20,000 to develop an online course that would replace a traditional lecture class.  In an era in which academic construction dollars are scarcer than hen’s teeth, this is an important factor, and the money saved could be used to construct facilities like the one in which we teach studio physics.

This isn’t just an intramural tussle over the best way to teach.  Instead, it’s a debate about whether we will provide more students access to the best economic opportunities our society will offer going forward.

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