NYU and UF researchers invent new techniques to “discover” that “our brains are designed to learn through complex social interactions”. Fortunately for our students, we already knew that.

A group of researchers led by neuroscientists and engineers from New York University and the University of Florida recently announced the results of a study of how high school students learn science best. In this study, electrodes were attached to the students’ skulls during class to record their brain activity. According to lead author Suzanne Dikker of New York University, the primary conclusion was that “our brains are designed to learn through complex social interactions”.

Fortunately, those of us teaching in the Studio Physics Program at Florida State University came to the same conclusion a long time ago – and without having to attach electrodes to our students’ skulls. The studio instructional model we adopted takes full advantage of the power of social interactions in the classroom. Our model, which was originally developed at North Carolina State University, emphasizes active collaboration among students in performing hands-on experiments and learning problem-solving techniques. We lecture very little because when students are quietly listening to us lecture they are not engaging in “complex social interactions”.

Not surprisingly, student learning gains in our studio physics classes are much larger than they are in traditional lecture classes. For some key concepts, our learning gains are double what they are in traditional lectures. Similar results have been achieved at other universities that have adopted the same classroom model, including Florida A&M University and the University of Central Florida.

The “interactive engagement” strategies that we use in our studio physics classes aren’t just for the college level. Two Bay County physics teachers, Rachel Morris at Rutherford High School and Nancy Browne at Bay High School, have significantly increased their use of interactive engagement in their courses with the help of equipment loaned to their high schools by FSU. Matt Martens, the high school physics teacher at Florida State University Schools and a 2015 graduate of FSU’s Ph.D. program in physics, is preparing a full implementation of the studio model for next year’s physics class.

Nor are interactive engagement strategies only useful in physics. According to North Carolina State University education researchers, the studio model we use in Physics at FSU is used at other postsecondary institutions in chemistry, math, biology, astronomy, engineering, and even literature courses.

The success we have had with the Studio Physics Program at FSU could not have been achieved without the tremendous support we’ve received from our university’s administration. That is just as true at the other institutions that have adopted this approach to student learning – both at the high school and postsecondary levels.

Support from institutional leaders will continue to be a necessary and key ingredient for implementing interactive engagement strategies that harness “complex social interactions” to improve student learning. We can only hope that these leaders understand the importance of this research so that they support educators who are willing to do the hard work necessary to bring these strategies into their classrooms.

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A picture from the NYU/UF experimental classroom…

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…and a view from ours, where we already knew what the NYU and UF researchers recently “discovered”

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