In 2009, Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman published a series of articles here at Science 2.0 with ways to improve science education (see Why Not Try A Scientific Approach To Science Education?) and one of the ideas he advocated was using clickers and consensus groups along with generally remaking the traditional lecture method.  He found that when students had to reach a consensus on a group answer and when they had technology available to help improve learning, the questions he received were far better and the learning improved as well.

A new project published in Science showed his interactive teaching methods significantly improved attendance and doubled both engagement and learning, even in a large physics class.

Led by Louis Deslauriers, a post-doctoral researcher at  University of British Columbia's Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI), the study compared the amount of learning students experienced when taught (in three hours over one week) by traditional lecture and by using interactive activities based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education.

The research team found that students in the interactive class were nearly twice as engaged as their counterparts in the traditional class. Students from the experimental class uniformly scored nearly twice as well in a test designed to determine their grasp of complex physics concepts (average score 74 per cent vs. 41 per cent, with random guessing producing a score of 23 per cent). Attendance in the interactive class also increased by 20 per cent during the experiment.

"There is overwhelming evidence how much teaching pedagogy based on cognitive psychology and education research can improve science education," said co-author Wieman, now Associate Director for Science of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who was involved with the study last year before going on leave from UBC and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). "This study further shows that we can achieve individual attention without individual interaction, and that even in a large class, the positive effects of a tutor or apprenticeship model can be achieved by using evidence-based teaching methods."

"In addition to the objective measurements of engagement, attendance and test scores, we also surveyed students and found that these teaching methods generated a lot of excitement in class – which makes for a great learning environment," says Deslauriers, lead author of the study.

In the study, two classes of an undergraduate physics course with approximately 270 students each were taught by highly-rated, professors with decades of experience. In the second-to-last week of the second semester, the instructor of one of the classes was replaced by Deslauriers and Ellen Schelew, a master's student in the Department of Physics at UBC. Deslauriers and Schelew had been trained by Wieman and other CWSEI researchers in interactive, evidence-based teaching methods but otherwise had little teaching experience beyond serving as teaching assistants.

During the experimental week, Deslauriers and Schelew gave no formal lecturing but guided students through a series of activities that had previously been shown to enhance learning, such as paired and small-group discussions and active learning tasks, which included the use of remote-control "clickers" to provide feedback for in-class questions. Pre-class reading assignments and quizzes were also given to ensure students were prepared to discuss course material upon arrival in class.

"These activities require more work from the students, but the students report that they feel they are learning more and are more vested in their own learning," says co-author Schelew.

"This study is designed specifically to gauge the impact of interactive teaching methods in a large undergraduate physics class, and the results present a very 'clean' comparison to the traditional lecture method," says Wieman.

Citation: Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Carl Wieman, 'Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class', Science 13 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6031 pp. 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783