Last time I discussed reducing cognitive load in a new approach to scientific education:
Some ways to do so are obvious, such as slowing down. Others include having a clear, logical, explicit organization to the class (including making connections between different ideas presented and connections to things the students already know), using figures where appropriate rather than relying only on verbal descriptions and minimizing the use of technical jargon.
Addressing Beliefs

A second way teachers can improve instruction is by recognizing the importance of student beliefs about science. This is an area my own group studies. We see that the novice/expert-like beliefs are important in a variety of ways — for example they correlate with content learning and choice of major. However, our particular interest is how teaching practices affect student beliefs.

Although this is a new area of research, we find that with rather minimal interventions, a teacher can avoid the regression mentioned above. The particular intervention we have tried addresses student beliefs by explicitly discussing, for each topic covered, why this topic is worth learning, how it operates in the real world, why it makes sense, and how it connects to things the student already knows.

Doing little more than this eliminates the usual significant decline and sometimes results in small improvements, as measured by our surveys. This intervention also improves student interest, because the beliefs measured are closely linked to that interest. 

Stimulating and Guiding Thinking

My third example of how teaching and learning can be improved is by implementing the principle that effective teaching consists of engaging students, monitoring their thinking, and providing feedback. Given the reality that student-faculty interaction at most colleges and universities is going to be dominated by time together in the classroom, this means the teacher must make this happen first and foremost in the classroom.

To do this effectively, teachers must first know where the students are starting from in their thinking, so they can build on that foundation. Then they must find activities that ensure that the students actively think about and process the important ideas of the discipline. Finally, instructors must have mechanisms by which they can probe and then guide that thinking on an ongoing basis. This takes much more than just mastery of the topic — it requires, in the memorable words of Lee Shulman, “pedagogical content knowledge.”

Getting students engaged and guiding their thinking in the classroom is just the beginning of true learning, however. This classroom experience has to be followed up with extended “effortful study,” where the student spends considerably more time than is possible in the classroom dev eloping expert-like thinking and skills.  

Even the most thoughtful, dedicated teachers spend enormously more time worrying about their lectures than they do about their homework assignments, which I think is a mistake.  Extended, highly focused mental processing is required to build those little proteins that make up the long-term memory.

No matter what happens in the relatively brief period students spend in the classroom, there is not enough time to develop the long-term memory structures required for subject mastery.  To ensure that the necessary extended effort is made, and that it is productive, requires carefully designed homework assignments, grading policies, and feedback.

As a practical  matter,  in a university environment with large classes the most effective way for students to get the feedback that will make their study time more productive and develop their metacognitive skills is through peer collaboration.


I believe that most reasonably good teachers could engage students and guide their thinking if they had only two or three students in the class. But the reality of the modern university is that we must find a way to accomplish this with a class of 200 students.  

There are a number of new technologies that, when used properly, can be quite effective at extending instructors’ capabilities so that they can engage and guide far more students at once.

A caveat: Far too often, the technology drives instruction and student thinking rather than the educational purposes driving the development and use of the technology. A second caveat: There is far too little careful testing of various technologies’ effectiveness in increasing the learning of real students. However, here I will begin three demonstrably effective uses of technology.

Just-in-time teaching” was introduced by Gregor Novack, Andy Gavrin, Evelyn Patterson, and Wolfgang Christian. The technique uses the Web to ask students questions concerning the material to be covered, questions that they must answer just before class. The students thus start the class already engaged, and the instructor, who has looked at the students’ answers, already knows a reasonable amount about their difficulties with the topic to be covered.

A second technology that I have worked with extensively is personal-response systems or “clickers.” Each student has a clicker with which to answer questions posed during class. A computer records each student’s answer and can display a histogram of those responses. The clicker efficiently and quickly gets an answer from each student for which that student is accountable but which is anonymous to their peers. 

I have found that these clickers can have a profound impact on the educational experience of students. The most productive use of clickers in my experience is to enhance the Peer Instruction (PI) technique developed by Eric Mazur, particularly for less active or assertive students.

We will go over that in more detail in Part 5.


W. Adams et al. (2005), Proceedings of the 2004 Physics Education Research Conference, J. Marx, P, Heron, S. Franklin, eds., American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, p. 45.

R. Hake (1998), The American Journal of Physics. 66, 64.

D. Hammer (1997), Cognition and Instruction. 15, 485.

D. Hestenes, M. Wells, G. Swackhammer (1992), The Physics Teacher. 30, 141.

Z. Hrepic, D. Zollman, N. Rebello. “Comparing students’and experts’ understanding of the content of a lecture,” to be published in Journal of Science Education and Technology. A pre-print is available at

E. Mazur (1997), Peer Instructions: A User’s Manual, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

G. Novak, E. Patterson, A.Gavrin, and W. Christian (1999), Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

K. Perkins et al. (2005), Proceedings of the 2004 Physics Education Research Conference, J. Marx, P. Heron, S. Franklin, eds., American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, p. 61.

E. Redish (2003), Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.


Originally presented in Change magazine, September/October 2007.