New ideas in T&L: April

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When Nobel Prize Winners Talk About Teaching University Science

Nobel Prize winning physicist Carl Wieman visited The University of Queensland with collaborator Sarah Gilbert in March this year. Both Sarah and Carl gave talks to various audiences (details and resources here). Carl advocated for a scientific approach to teaching whereby university-level scientists teaching undergraduates treat teaching like they do research – an approach that has support from others previously. This approach to education means teaching is thought of like an inquiry process shaped by:

  1. Curiosity of about learning and teaching (make observations)
  2. Prior knowledge gained from the literature (scholarship)
  3. Wondering about teaching practices and how learning happens (questions)
  4. Beliefs, informed by literature, about good teaching approaches (hypothesis)
  5. Piloting and experimenting in your teaching practices (experimenting)
  6. Gathering data about your teaching and the impact on students’ learning (data collection)
  7. Reviewing the data, making sense of it, and revising your practice (analysis, action research)
  8. Sharing those findings publically (peer review)
Carl Wieman

Carl’s keynote talk challenged assumptions about what students learn from a traditional lecture. His talk attracted a wide and diverse audience – and not that of a typical higher education presentation. As someone who has been involved in teaching at UQ for a decade, I was pleasantly surprised to see people at Carl’s talk that I had never seen before – indicating a field of influence beyond that of the core, committed teaching and learning group at UQ. A colleague noted, “I have never seen more men than women at one of these education talks.”

Watch Carl’s UQ talk here:

At a talk for UQ students, which attracted over 150 science and engineering students, Carl challenged students when he asked a simple question about how they learn best in lectures. Attending and taking copious notes was not the answer! In fact, data he presented suggested students who did not attend traditional lectures, but instead read the notes thoroughly outside of class, performed better on tests. A student retorted, “That goes against everything all my lecturers tell me!”. Carl was not surprised and actively argued that students were better off not attending traditional ‘didactic’ lectures, but that they should devote time to demanding more effective teaching practices at their university. Interestingly, he did not say this in his talk to academic staff.

Carl’s focus was on teaching and learning in lectures – presenting evidence on how active learning techniques can increase students’ knowledge and mathematical problem-solving skills. Carl’s research into tertiary teaching has not focused on learning in labs. Real lab experiences were central vital to his undergraduate science education. In his biography, he writes

I quickly became deeply engaged in research as an undergraduate and continued to work in Dan Kleppner’s research group until I left for graduate school. I found this much more interesting and educational than taking courses, and quickly adopted a philosophy of taking as few courses as possible. Since I never did terribly well in most normal courses anyway, particularly ones that had exams, this worked out well.

I suggest that Carl’s recipe for learning success in undergraduate science education in 2016 is active learning in lectures combined with authentic research experiences in real labs.

Scientists leadings scientists in teaching makes sense. When a Nobel Prize winner talks about science undergraduate education – scientists listen. Carl’s visit opened up opportunities for conversations with colleagues who typically don’t engage in teaching conversations. While we can’t always have a Nobel Prize winner come talk about teaching; we can think more about harnessing the potential of visiting scientists – and by asking them to talk about teaching in addition to their research we may continue these important conversations with a broader audience.