Archive June 2011

the carnegie hall hypothesis: practice makes perfect Alison Campbell Jun 30

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Hot on the heels of the paper on methods for improving learning in first-year physics (Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman, 2011), comes one by Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre & Freeman (2011) that casts a critical eye on methods for teaching first-year biology classes.

Today’s students come from more diverse backgrounds, and have far more diverse prior learning experiences, than when I was a student myself. Those differences can contribute to a gap in achievement in first-year biology – something that’s exacerbated by academic assumptions about prior learning & which can contribute to poor student retention into subsequent study in the subject. 

Interestingly, when I showed the paper to a couple of colleagues, their first response was ‘let’s get clickers!’. Personally I’m rather cool on the idea: partly because they’re not exactly cheap, but also because what both papers show is that it’s not the clickers themselves that make the difference, it’s what you do with them. If all you do is use them to find out what answers students give to multichoice questions, & nothing more, this technology won’t actually add anything to student learning (eg Deslauriers et al., 2011). If, however, clickers are used as an integral part of a wider, active learning, experience, then you’ll see biiig improvements in student learning outcomes.

And that is amply demonstrated by this latest study by Haak & his colleagues. They note that, especially when dealing with disadvantaged students in the US, the response has often been to throw money at the problem to support reasonably comprehensive heavily targeted programs. Because this can quickly become rather expensive, such programs rarely become a regular, normal part of teaching programs. And they ask:

Can an existing STEM course [1] be modified to improve performance by students from disadvantaged educational and socioeconomic backgrounds who are at high risk of failing, without requiring increased resources in the way of staffing or external funding?

In other words, is it possible to set things up in a large-group lecture classroom that lets students achieve as they would if they were getting one-on-one instruction? This is something that should be of interest to university academics for several reasons, including the fact that in New Zealand there is an increasing focus from the government on improving student retention and completion rates, and on enhancing the proportion of Maori & Pasifika students enrolling & succeeding in university programs.

To answer this question, the research team worked with a big first-year Biology class at the University of Washington, specifically looking at the performance of students in the university’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Students in this program come from disadvantaged backgrounds (educationally &/or economically), & the majority of them are from non-Caucasian ethnic groups. Analysis of a very large number of student records found a large ‘achievement gap’ between EOP and non-EOP students, such that over the period 2003-2008 EOP students in Biology 180 had an average failure rate of 21.9% (cf 10.1% for the non-EOP cohort). Haak & his colleagues hypothesised that this was because grades in the paper were heavily dependent on exams that ‘test higher-order cognitive skills’, and that students in the EOP program aren’t as well prepared as the non-EOP group to that assessment style.

The paper was originally taught by the standard, traditional lecture format, with little involvement by the students. Previous work led by one of the team (Freeman) found that if the lecturer incorporated active-learning exercises in his class (daily multichoice questions and weekly practice tests), then all students’ performance improved compared to the outcome from that traditional format. This makes sense, as the students were practicing the skills they’d need to achieve well in the final exam.

But wait, there’s more. A third course design saw the class taught (by the same instructor) without any lectures at all, where the active-learning exercises were combined with ‘pre-class reading quizzes and extensive informal group work in class’ – exactly what Deslauriers & his team did with their experimental cohort of physics students.  No surprises here:

The highly structured [third] approach resulted in another increase in overall performance by all students, compared with the low-structure, lecture-intensive course with no required active learning and [my emphasis] the moderate structure design based on clickers and a weekly practice exam.

That in itself is an excellent outcome. What about the EOP students in particular, since that’s where the big achievement gap is apparent?

… although all students benefit from [highly-structured teaching], EOP students experience a disproportionate benefit.

Way to go! Importantly, in these straitened economic times, this intervention didn’t cost any extra money. What’s more, the second time the ‘highly structured’ intervention was used, class size had gone from 345 to 700, lab clases had been cut to one every 2 weeks, and the ratio of teaching assistants to students went from 1:49 to 1:87.5. (Note to the Finance people: this is not a reason to cut funding for demonstrators!)

You could ask how, exactly, this intervention is having its effect. Are the students simply learning more ‘stuff’ as a result of the different teaching methods, or are they also gaining higher-order cognitive skills? During Cathy Buntting’s PhD research she found that teaching students how to develop concept maps had a significant impact on their ability to answer ‘thinking’ questions, as opposed to ‘recall’ questions, so I’d have put money on Haak’s team finding that active learning has a positive impact on cognitive abilities. Haak & his colleagues comment that because Biology 180 relies heavily on higher-order thinking-type questions in its exams, then better results in those exams does suggest ‘actual learning gains’ and an improved understanding of the content covered in the paper. They suggest that

active learning that promotes peer interaction makes students articulate their logic and consider other points of view when solving problems, leading to learning gains.

Hopefully this will be the focus of a future research project.

Deslauriers L, Schelew E, & Wieman C (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6031), 862-4 PMID: 21566198

Haak DC, HilleRisLambers J, Pitre E, & Freeman S (2011). Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6034), 1213-6 PMID: 21636776

[1] STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics

Oh, and the ‘Carnegie Hall’ hypothesis? It’s named for the story of a tourist who asked a New Yorker how to get to Carnegie Hall. The local guy answered, ‘practice!’

wonderful wordle: if my dishwasher had wings Alison Campbell Jun 28

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 As a bit of light relief from my current admin, I wandered over to Wordle to see how my blog ‘visualises’ itself at the moment.

if my dishwasher had wings.png


From which I gather that a hot dishwasher is beneficial, & evolution may one day fit it with wings…

Wordle. I like it :-)

the moon is a poor prognosticator… Alison Campbell Jun 27


… and I don’t know why the media continue to give attention to claims about its influence on earthquakes & weather. Or at least, why they do so without applying a modicum of critical thinking.

I spotted an article on ‘moon man’ Ken Ring in Saturday’s NZ Herald, While this was not entirely unexpected, Ken did say back in April (following his previous difficulties with the media and with various ministerial & scientific pronouncements) that unless there was some government or media-led change, he’d be making no further predictions in regard to earthquakes. Yet here he was, saying

What I’m doing is science. I’m university trained and I’ve never done a horoscope for anyone in my life, so no one can level the word astrology at me.

and making predictions. Testable predictions:

Ring initially said there could be more quake activity this weekend given “extremely low air pressures” in the past few days.

“You get strong earthquakes at that time which is why we had the one on the 21st (June)”.

But the next day he said quake activity would more likely happen on July 1.

Ring also predicted there would be no snow on the mountains until August and a wintry blast would hit the country in October.

Let’s assume the interview took place on Friday 24 June. In which case he should have stuck with the initial prediction, as there were indeed a string of earthquakes in Canterbury over the weekend. Oh well. No doubt he meant a ‘large’ quake.

As for the predicted absence of snow: when I met friends in Rotorua on Saturday, they commented on having driven through snow flurries as they crossed the Desert Road  Mount Hutt was set to open today, as enough snow has now fallen on the beginner & intermediate slopes. And we appear to be having a wintry blast right now. Oh dear.

So – will we see a follow-up item, an interview maybe, from the Herald? One would hope so, especially considering that back in April Mr Ring is on record as saying that

For us though, it’ll die down. The (earthquake) timeline has always been until the end of April.

Scientists are now saying it’ll be February 2013 before it stops but they’re just making it up.

After this month [24 April] the moon moves away, the Jupiter-Saturn effect moves away that’s been causing solar activity, and it’ll be the end of the main part of the earthquake sequence. Things will die down then.

I mean, how much effort does it take to check through your own back issues? Whatever happened to investigative journalism?
And the ‘Jupiter-Saturn’ effect? Just googled it. Somehow I think that one doesn’t need to cast a horoscope, to be using astrology.

“how do you know?” always trumps “were you there?” Alison Campbell Jun 24

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Young-Earth creationist Ken Ham proudly teaches children to ask ‘were you there?’ of anyone making statements about evolution, the age of the Earth, or indeed of any scientific statements involving long periods of time.  This isn’t a genuine question, as someone who’s been coached by Ham & his ilk will feel that they already know the answer, so they’re not asking out of a desire to learn more. On Pharyngula, PZ has written a beautiful post – in the form of a letter to one such child – on why it’s so much more interesting, and rewarding, to ask ‘how do you know?’ instead.

birds exist, so evolution is an incoherent theory… Alison Campbell Jun 23

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On the way to her exam this morning, the Daughter brought me a poster that she’d plucked from the noticeboard down the corridor [1}. We read it together, & much hilarity ensued.

Evolution "occurs via beneficial mutation." Birds exist. Assuming evolution, birds would evolve wings. The 'wings' of first birds are non-functional and thus, are not beneficial. Bird evolution would therefore require the preservation of non-beneficial, non-functional, semi-formed wings! Evolution is an incoherent theory - see the full story at [2]

I can agree with the author of this tract that birds exist. For the rest – I can only assume that whoever put it up on the noticeboard either hadn’t taken biology or, if they did, had their fingers in their ears & their eyes closed for a lot of the course.

Let’s have a straw man starter: Evolution “occurs via beneficial mutation.” Well, no, no it doesn’t. Mutations occur randomly. If a particular mutation happens to convey an advantage to the individual carrying it, such that they are more likely to survive & reproduce, then it’ll probably be passed along to the next generation. Evolution results from natural selection’s actions on individuals that possess a range of mutations, which may be beneficial in some contexts, or harmful, or simply neutral. (Genetic drift is also important, but our writer hasn’t mentioned that.)

Assuming evolution, birds would evolve wings. No, again. Evolution doesn’t look to the future. An observer 80 million years ago would have had no way of knowing that the feathery little reptiles observing him (with lunch in mind) from the bushes were the distant ancestors of modern birds. The fact that today we recognise birds by their feathered bodies and wings does not mean that the evolution of wings was a given, way back then.

The ‘wings’ of first birds are non-functional and thus, are not beneficial. Says who? Feathers definitely evolved well before fully functional aerodynamic wings, as demonstrated by the existence of a range of feathered dinosaurs. Remember that feathers aren’t just involved in flight, but also provide insulation. Their appearance in the fossil record, on manifestly non-flying animals, suggests another function then too. Nor were those dinosaurs’ feathery forelimbs ‘non-functional’; they just weren’t being used for powered flight. (However, fossils like those of the tiny Microraptor do suggest that feathers on the limbs might have conferred some ‘lift’ as the animals ran about, thus making locomotion more energy-efficient – a feature that would be favoured by natural selection.)

I know where the incoherency lies, & it’s not with evolutionary biology.

[1] I did put it back afterwards. With my response :-)

[2] A Young-Earth Creationist website. Which promotes – among other things – the views of Kent Hovind. Even Answers in Genesis has disagreed with him on occasion!

dishwashers of doom Alison Campbell Jun 22

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I don’t know what worried me more about this article in The Registrar – the implication that my dishwasher & its fungal denizens might be out to get me (which I suppose could necessitate returning to Plan B: the Significant Other; after all, I do the cooking, so he can wash up!), or the rather piss-taking tone of the story. I mean, how else to take the headline: The Killer Mutant Fungus in Your Dishwasher: don’t approach without a biohaz suit and a flamethrower ?

On the other hand, it did spur me into going to look for the original article :-) And now I know that the ‘interesting’ black stuff that sometimes springs up (not literally!) around the seals is probably a living organism & not necessarily due to the family’s regrettable inability to rinse dishes before loading. (The authors of the article don’t actually say whether their investigation was initiated after observing similar black mouldy bits, but I can’t help wondering…)

Now, purveyors of various household cleaning agents would have us believe that the kitchen is home to a range of nasty microbes, which can be held at bay only by spraying or wiping with various anti-microbial or antiseptic products. (I wonder how my family remains so healthy, in the absence of many of these wondrous chemicals.) But you’d think something like a dishwasher would be hygienically clean – after all, anything that goes through the wash cycle has been exposed to high temperatures and a fairly alkaline (high pH) environment (although that may be changing, as we move to less-harsh detergents and cooler temperatures in attempts to use less energy and release fewer wastes).

Not according to Zalar and colleagues. Noting that our knowledge of organisms that live in extreme environments (extremophiles) is expanding, they decided to look away from the hot pools and volcanic vents and into a more mundane environment – the domestic dishwasher. Anything that can colonise & survive in that machine’s hot, alkaline conditions could also rightly be described as an extremophile – one with a ready source of nutrients from all those messy food smears. So the team took samples from the inside surfaces of dishwashers: specifically, the rubber seals, as their surface would be easier to colonise than slick metal.

They ended up sampling 189 machines from private homes: 102 from Slovenia, 42 from elsewhere in Europe, and the rest from North & South America, Africa, Australia, Israel, and Far-East Asia. Because they were interested in the possibility of dishwashers harbouring human pathogens, they incubated their samples at 37oC, before going on to test the ability of some of them to grow at temperatures closer to what you might find in an operating dishwasher.

The results: a range of fungi, including Aspergillus (which can cause quite significant disease), Candida (aka ‘thrush’) and Penicillium, with the most commonly-found species – in around a third of dishwashers - being the ‘black yeasts’ (Exophalia spp.) They also found quite a bit of variation in terms of how ‘infected’ the machines were, with those from North America having the most fungal species while those from Spain were all devoid of fungal life. However, I think the numbers are a bit low to draw much from that, with only 13 from North America and 5 from Spain.

 Exophalia is ‘known to cause systemic disease in humans’ and is a common pathogen in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Some of the Exophalia strains survived in temperatures up to 47oC, although I do wonder how they could hang on given that dishwasher temperatures can exceed 60o and get up to 80oC on occasion. The authors don’t propose any survival mechanisms, & I’d like to hear more about that. 

However (before you rush out & get rid of the dishwasher) they found no evidence of fungal illnesses that could be attributed to the ‘dishwasher’ fungi in the homes where they obtained their samples. So while the possibility is there for the home dishwasher to be a hotbed of infection, in practice no link has yet been observed. And this rather gives the lie to the somewhat hysterical tone of the Register report. We’re not yet at the point of needing haz-mat suits to wear while doing the dishes. Still, I suppose that approach wouldn’t sell so many papers…

But it’s also rather cool to think that extremophile organisms may be living much closer to home – no need to head off to the slopes of Erebus or the edge of a boiling soda spring to spot them.

I must go & get the rubber gloves and baking soda :-)

P.Zalar, M.Novak, Hoog, & N.Gunde-Cimerman (2011). Dishwashers – a man-made ecological niche accommodating human opportunistic fungal pathogens Journal of Fungal Biology : 10.1016/j.funbio.2011.04.007

 (Hopefully Siouxsie will cover this one too, from the perspective of a microbiologist.)

gearing up for an olympiad Alison Campbell Jun 20

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I’ll be off to Taipei in 3 weeks’ time (a little less, actually – eeek!) to attend the 22nd International Biology Olympiad. I’m going as an observer with the New Zealand IBO team, in order to get a first-hand look at how the competition is run, because -

- in 2014 we’ll be hosting the 25th IBO competitions, right here at the University of Waikato! This is a brilliant opportunity to showcase the University, Hamilton City, the wider Waikato region & indeed New Zealand to the global education sector. Teams from around 60 countries will be here, and it’s not just the students – they’re accompanied by adult team leaders, academics, in many cases there’s a media presence from the home country as well.

NZIBO UoW MoU edited.JPG

UoW Vice-Chancellor Prof Roy Crawford & NZIBO Chair Dr Angela Sharples sign the hosting agreement, while yours truly looks on.

New Zealand’s sent a team to the IBO since 2005, and the teams have brought home medals every year – apparently we’re the only country where students have won medals in their first year of being part of the competition. Winning a place in the team is fairly competitive and there’s a lot of hard work involved, but anyone who comes through the training camp will be extremely well-prepared for tertiary studies in biology – they’ll have worked their way through the whole of Campbell Biology, which is the first-year text for just about every NZ university :-) (Teachers – this year’s entrance exam is on Wednesday 17th August, and it would be great if you could encourage your talented year 12 biology students to consider entering it.)

Having the event in New Zealand will be very special, although it may also add to the pressure to do well! Not least because, as well as being the 25th year of IBO, 2014 also marks the 50th anniversary of the University of Waikato and 150 years since Hamilton City was founded. We’ll be working with organisations in Hamilton and beyond to make this an event to remember. (And if anyone wants to put their hand up to help out, I’d love to hear from you!)

evolution according to futurama Alison Campbell Jun 19


One of my students sent me the link to this video (obviously thinking I could do with a bit of light relief from marking!): Futurama’s take on evolutionary arms races :-)


Cartoonists’ license aside,there’s a kernel of scientific content in here: evolutionary arms races aren’t all that unusual. In fact, it’s been suggested – in the “Red Queen” hypothesis – that such an arms race, between eukaryote organisms & their parasites and pathogens, may have driven the evolution of sexual reproduction. Your immune system acts as an agent of natural selection on pathogens and parasites: it may well detect and destroy or repel almost all of them, but those with a heritable trait that allows them to survive your attacks will survive and that useful trait (useful from the pathogen’s point of view!) will spread. This in turn generates new selection pressure on the host, and so on. Sexual reproduction, with its potential to throw up huge amounts of genetic variation in each new generation, may have given an edge in terms of producing genetic recombinations that allowed those indivduals with them to better fight off the bad guys :)

(On looking further, I found that Family Guy had their usual irreverent take on the subject as well, including a dig at Young-Earth creationists while they were at it…)

engaging students effectively in science, technology and engineering Alison Campbell Jun 14

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My eye was caught by that title to a paper just out on the Ako Aotearoa website (click here for the summary document & here for the full report). The sub-title is The pathway from secondary to university education, a topic that is dear to my heart.

Tim Parkinson & his co-authors were keen to get a handle on just how university students make the transition from secondary school to university, and how they become/remain engaged with science during that process. The project’s underlying aims were to:

  • improve student engagement in the study of science at university;
  • improve the transition from the school learning environment to that of university;
  • identify and promolgate pedagogical ‘best practice’ for science education in the first year at university.

(I know this is nit-picking, but surely the aim was to provide information that will help universities enhance student engagement and transition, using a range of ‘best practice’ options identified during the project. They weren’t looking at whether particular interventions actually had that result.)

In order to know how to make these changes, you really need to know what’s currently happening – and also how lecturers & students percieve what’s happening in their classrooms. We already know (eg Buntting, 2006) that there’s a mismatch between lecturer & student perceptions about prior knowledge, in biology at least, so I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the same mismatch exists around perceptions of teaching quality and engagement. The research team looked at all this using a combination of questionnaires & focus groups, working with secondary school science students (N=421), university students in their first year of a science degree (N=630), school science teachers (N-33) and uni science lecturers (N=69). Each of the four groups in the study answered the same questions, although the wording differed a bit depending on the group. For example,

Teacher questionnaire: I give students the opportunity to influence the way that they are taught. Student questionnaire: I am given the opportunity to influence the way I am taught.

(Parkinson et al, 2011; answers were scored on a 5-point Likert scale.)

As you might expect, it turns out that lecturers’ style, personality & enthusiasm had a big impact on students’ engagement with science at university, and on their ability to move smoothly from secondary school to higher-level study. But the lecturers’ abiltiy to present information in contexts that students see as relevant to their own specific interests is also important – not least because this would allow students to fit that information into their own internalised understanding of & knowledge about science (their ‘schema’). In addition

learning science in a contemporary context… stimulates engagement, and students enjoy learning when it is connected with a sense of discovery.

And there were definitely notable differences in perceptions related to teaching and learning. For example, the team commented that

… school and university students thought less highly of the abilities of their teacher in [the area of teacher qualities ie things like presentation skills, quality of feedback] than did the teachers and lecturers themselves. For example, university and school learners perceived their lecturers’ qualities to be of a moderate standard, whereas lecturers themselves reported that their own lecturing qualities were of a high standard.

Something that I found intriguing was that none of the groups felt that self-directed learning was a significant facet of classroom activity – its reported frequency fell around ‘sometimes’ and ‘rarely’. Our graduate profile document indicates that we expect students to be independent learners by the time they complete their degree – developing the necessary skills must surely begin in first year! Surely there’s a need – noted by the researchers in their summary, to make sure that we reward such things as critical thinking and other higher-order learning skills (which of course has an impact on how we assess our students’ learning).

It is tricky for uni staff though, for our students come into class with a wide range of previous learning experiences, depending on what subjects and which standards they’ve studied at school. This means that we’re a bit between a rock & a hard place, needing to extend able students with a lot of existing content knowledge without losing those who might not have the same skills or learning experiences. Parkinson & his colleagues suggest that universities – certainly university staff engaged in first-year teaching – need to become much more aware of the learning outcomes gained by students in their NCEA studies. This would mean that those lecturers would be able to

build on the diversity of knowledge that results from the standards-based NCEA high school education.

It occurs to me that doing this would send a powerful message to students – that their lecturers really do care about helping manage the transition from school to uni and are personally interested in their learning outcomes. (I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t, only that students may not perceive things that way!) And that can have a big impact on how students perceive and approach their studies.

C.Buntting (2006) Educational issues in tertiary introductory biology. PhD thesis, University of Waikato.

T.J.Parkinson, H.Hughes, D.H.Gardner, G.T.Suddaby, M.Gilling & B.R.MacIntyre (2011) Engaging students effectively in science, technology and engineering (full report) Ako Aotearoa ISBN 978-0-473-18900-6 (online)

effects of changing teaching styles on student learning Alison Campbell Jun 11


I know I’m creeping into Marcus’s territory here but the research I’m going to discuss today would apply to pretty much any tertiary classroom :-)

This story got a bit of press about a month ago, with the Herald carrying a story under the headline: It’s not teacher, but method that matters. The news article went on to say that “students who had to engage interactively using the TV remote-like devices [aka 'clickers'] scored about twice as high on a test compared to those who heard the normal lecture.” However, as I suspected (being familiar with Carl Wieman’s work), there was a lot more to this intervention than using a bit of technology to ‘vote’ on quiz answers :-)

The methods traditionally used to teach at university (ie classes where the lecturer lectures & the students take notes) have been around for a very long time & they work for some – after all, people of my generation were taught that way at uni, & it’s not uncommon to hear statements like, we succeeded & today’s students can do it too. But transmission methods of teaching don’t reach a lot of students particularly well, nor do they really engage students with the subject as well as they might. (And goodness knows, we need to engage students with science!)

Wieman has already documented the impact (or lack of it) of traditional teaching methods on student learning in physics, but this paper (Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman, 2011) goes further in examining the effect on student learning and engagement of changing teaching methods in one group of first-year students in a large undergraduate physics class. It can be hard to manage a class of 850 students, and so the lecturers at the University of British Columbia had split it into 3 groups, with each group taught by a different lecturer. While the lecturers prepared and taught the course material independently, exams, assignments and lab work were the same for all students.

Two of the three groups of students were involved in the week-long experiment; one continued to be taught by its regular, highly experienced instructor, while the other group was taught by a graduate student (Deslauriers) who’d been trained in ‘active learning’ techniques known to be effective in enhancing student learning. And ‘active learning’ wasn’t just using clickers: the ‘experimental’ group had: “pre-class reading assignments, pre-class reading quizzes [on-line, true/false quizzes based on that reading], in-class clicker questions…, small-group active learning tasks, and targeted in-class instructor feedback” (Deslauriers et al, 2011). Students worked on challenging questions and learned to practice scientific reasoning skills to solve problems, all with frequent feedback from the instructor. There was no formal lecturing at all; the pre-class reading was intended to cover the factual content normally delivered in class time. While the control group’s lecturer also used clickers, this was simply to gain class answers to quiz questions & wasn’t used along with student-student discussion, which was the case with the experimental class.

One reason often given by lecturers for not trying new things in the classroom is that the students might resist the changes. But you can avoid that. I know Marcus finds his students are very accepting of change if he explains in advance what he’s doing & how the innovation will hopefully enhance their learning, and Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman did the same, explaining to students “why the material was being taught this way and how research showed that this approach would increase their learning.”

So, what was the effect of this classroom innovation? Well, it was assessed in several ways. During the experiment, observers assessed how much the students seemed to be engaged in & involved with the learning process; they also counted heads to see what attendance was like. At the end of the intervention, learning was assessed using a multichoice test written by both instructors – prior to this, all learning materials were provided to both groups of students. And students were asked to complete a questionnaire looking at their attitudes to the intervention.

In both classes, only 55-57% of students actually attended class, prior to the experiment. Attendance remained at this level in the control group, but it shot up to 75% during the experimental teaching sessions. Engagement prior to the intervention was the same in both groups, 45%, but nearly doubled to 85% in the experimental cohort. Test scores taken in the week before the experiment were identical for the two groups (an average mark of 47%, which doesn’t sound very flash) – but the post-intervention test told a completely different story. The average score for the control group was 41% and for the experimental class it was 74% (with a standard deviation in each case of 13%). And the intervention was very well-received by students, with 77% feeling that they’d have learned more if the entire first-year course had been taught using interactive methods, rather than just that one week’s intervention.

Which is fairly compelling evidence that there really are better ways of teaching than the standard ‘transmission-of-knowledge’ lecture format. I try to use a lot of interactive techniques anyway – but reading this paper has cemented my intention to try something completely different next year, giving readings before a class on excretion (a subject which a large proportion of the class always seem to struggle with), and using the lecture time for questions, discussion, and probably a quiz that carries a small amount of credit, based on the readings they’ll have done. And of course, carefully explaining to the students about what I’m doing.

I’ll keep you posted :-)

Deslauriers L, Schelew E, & Wieman C (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6031), 862-4 PMID: 21566198

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