Rethinking university lectures

A more interactive, discussion- and quiz-based style of university teaching brings dramatic benefits to science learning, according to a new study. The interactive approach takes its inspiration from psychologist Anders Ericsson's theory of "deliberate practice", a highly motivated and thorough form of learning.

Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew and Carl Wieman parachuted into a physics course on week 12 and for half the year group (271 students) took over their three hours of lectures that week devoted to electromagnetic waves. A control group of 267 students were lectured by their usual, highly rated and energetic teacher following a conventional format (i.e. the students mostly sat and listened while he lectured). Both groups were set the same learning objectives.

Before the intervention, both groups had spent eleven weeks on the same course, albeit with different lecturers, and they were matched on mid-term exam performance and their engagement with, and attitudes to, class.

For the crucial week 12 lectures, the intervention students were led by Deslauriers and Schelew (both of whom have fairly limited teaching experience) and took part in a series of discussions in small groups, group tasks, quizzes on pre-class reading, clicker questions (each student answers questions using an electronic device that feeds their answers back to the teacher), and instructor feedback. There was no formal lecturing. The aim, according to the authors, was:

"...to have the students spend all their time in class engaged in deliberate practice at 'thinking scientifically' in the form of making and testing predictions and arguments about the relevant topics, solving problems, and critiquing their own reasoning and that of others."

The control group students had their usual lectures, covering the same material as the intervention students and they were given the same pre-class reading.

Student engagement (measured by trained observers) and attendance in the control group was unchanged in week 12 compared with earlier weeks. In the intervention group, attendance rose by 20 per cent and engagement nearly doubled.

In the first class after week 12, both groups were tested on what they'd learned in the previous week about electromagnetic waves. Also, two days before the test, students in both classes were emailed all the materials used by the intervention group: the clicker questions, group tasks and their solutions.

The results on the test were striking. The intervention group averaged 74 per cent correct, compared with 41 per cent correct in the control group. Factoring out the performance that could be achieved purely through guessing, the researchers said this meant the intervention group had performed twice as well as controls (the effect size was 2.5 standard deviations). Student feedback on the intervention was also overwhelmingly positive: 90 per cent of students said they'd enjoyed the interactive technique.

The researchers dismissed the idea that their findings could be explained by the Hawthorne Effect (i.e. a mere effect of novelty or of being observed). "While this experiment is introducing change in the student experience in one particular course (3 total hours per week) it provides little incremental novelty to their overall daily educational experience," they said.

The researchers' conclusion was upbeat: "We show that use of deliberate practice teaching strategies can improve both learning and engagement in a large laboratory physics course as compared with what was obtained with the lecture method ... This result is likely to generalise to a variety of postsecondary courses."
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ResearchBlogging.orgDeslauriers, L., Schelew, E., and Wieman, C. (2011). Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783

This post was written  for the BPS Research Digest.

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