A Nobel laureate walks into a classroom…

Nobel physics laureate Carl Wieman knows a thing or two about science. Thankfully for us in higher education, he is also passionate about good learning and teaching. This makes his recent comments that current teaching methods are archaic and “medieval in the sense that it’s somebody up there dispensing information” even more cause for concern. Here are his five main points from a recent talk, and some practical ways we can apply it in our teaching.

Carl Wieman at Sydney IdeasWieman recently spoke at the Sydney Ideas forum, calling attention to what is now known about effective student learning and the teaching approaches that promote this. How do good science and good teaching intersect, and how can we bring our teaching out of the Dark Ages?

Carl’s 5

Motivation

The more powerful motivators for real learning are intrinsic to students. A bit like low-GI foods, intrinsic motivation can be slower to develop but provides long lasting engagement. It comes about when students are inherently interested in the topic at hand and can see its relevance to themselves. To grow intrinsic motivation, consider who your students are, their backgrounds, and their trajectories. How does your unit concretely fit in with their lives, their careers, their passions? Consider giving some control over to them – this can be as involved as deciding or negotiating an assignment and its grading, to designing their own experiments, or as simple as choosing from a list of topical questions to answer in a tutorial. And it doesn’t hurt to share your own passion and what motivates you. Check out this great 3-pager that discusses how motivating students isn’t magic.

Connecting with prior knowledge

In edubabble, this is called constructivism, which is an unnecessarily complex way of describing that we build new understanding upon existing understanding. Learning isn’t about receiving, and so teaching isn’t about transmitting. But, constructing new knowledge can work against you in the classroom – if students build upon misconceptions and misunderstandings, this can quickly end in disaster (well, at least, confusion). This means that it’s important to draw out students’ prior knowledge and possible misconceptions (there are some tips for lectures in this Teche post). A favourite in science is asking students a multiple-choice question like, “Where does a tree get its mass? Water, soil, air, or sun?” Once you trigger students’ prior knowledge by asking their opinion (and possibly unearthing common shared misconceptions), they’re psychologically invested in finding out more. Of course, you’d do this in a positive and not punitive way, so that students feel safe to share. And once students’ prior knowledge is activated, you can help them build new information onto existing foundations. This is in part why analogies work so well, too.

Memory

We all have limitations to how much our short-term working memory can hold. This has a few interesting implications for teaching. (1) If students have too much to process at once, they may lose the important point(s). There are some easy fixes to reduce this so-called ‘cognitive load’: gradually build up students’ familiarity with new terms; check student understanding regularly; chunk content; provide a structure for the class ahead of time and revisit it regularly to locate progress; and there are a few PowerPoint tricks too. (2) To help students retain information in long-term memory, they need to actively retrieve it. This is called the ‘testing effect‘. Again, you can build activities into your class that ask students to apply understanding that they have constructed so far, such as by asking a question using clickers (but remember to use them properly!).

Authentic practice of expert thinking

Why do we teach, if not to grow up the next generation of thinkers and practitioners in our fields? However, the mental networks and structures of experts and novices differ substantially. For example, novices tend to memorise ideas and don’t see the connection between them, while experts see the hidden frameworks and connections between concepts. When teaching, this means we need to avoid the so-called ‘expert blindspot‘ and stop assuming that students can see structures that are obvious to us. Modelling or telling the expert structures to students will only go so far – they need to actively build these themselves. Carl Wieman describes one approach, using ‘invention activities‘, where students need to draw connections between carefully selected cases. Other things you may try are concept maps, where students visualise their knowledge network. More powerful than mind maps, concept maps can also help to surface misconceptions so that you can provide feedback.

Timely and specific feedback

Effective feedback is well known to be one of the most impactful influences on student learning. We all know the extrinsic motivators that drive students (i.e. marks), so let’s leverage assessments to promote student learning (this is a key focus in the new assessment policy as well). When giving feedback, try to ensure that it is frequently provided in a timely way, is specific and provides suggestions for improvement, focuses on what the student has produced, and aligns with the outcomes of the assessment. When giving verbal feedback, consider these tips from a recent paper (scroll down to Figure 3). Feedback doesn’t have to just come from teachers – you can build in class activities that help students learn from each other; just make sure that this process is guided. For example, try a ‘peer review‘ (as opposed to peer assessment) session on a report draft, modelling the academic enterprise. You could also try implementing tools like PeerWise, which provide students the opportunity to write questions and (importantly) feedback for each other.

Of course, the design of assessments and units plays an absolutely critical role in making feedback powerful. If students see the need to use feedback to help them with a subsequent assessment, they are more likely to use it. If possible, release feedback first, followed by the marks a couple of weeks later. Consider whether the assessments are ‘authentic’ (resembling what students would meet in the real world) – students are more likely to care about feedback on these.  Some time-saving approaches you may want to try are online quizzes with immediate feedback (they take a while to set up but you can re-use them), multi-stage assessments (super innovative!), or the old don’t-tell-them-which-question-we’re-marking trick (not so nice).

Bringing it all together

One of many ways that you can bring together all these five ideas is through the use of active learning in lectures. For example, well-designed questions can trigger student curiosity and surface their prior knowledge, as well as help them apply new knowledge structures and provide an opportunity for you to provide timely (on the spot!) feedback. This post is already too long, so we’ll save this for another one. But if you’re curious right now, see what not to do, and then check out some tips.

Tell me more!

Wieman and his group have put together a great set of resources on the University of British Columbia’s website. It’s worth checking out their instructor guidance, which has even more practical tips on course transformation, setting good assessments, running effective in-class activities, and more. If you’re thinking about your own unit and teaching, take their Teaching Practices Inventory which helps you to reflect on good teaching practices in traditional lecture-based courses – 15 minutes you won’t regret! This UBC blog also has a bunch of useful videos and other practical tips.

Hit us up in the comments below, contact me via the info box below, or come and talk to your new faculty learning and teaching teams if you’d like to share or explore some of these ideas further in your own context.

Written by Danny Liu

Danny Liu

Danny is a teacher, researcher, coder, scientist, and designer with a touch of Grumpy Cat (which he would much rather brand as realism). Currently a ‘senior lecturer in academic development and leadership’ at the University of Sydney and a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computing at Macquarie, he has convened, taught, mentored staff in, and redeveloped a number of large units, and has won a few national awards for this.

Danny is passionate about student engagement, infusing technology in learning & teaching, the first year experience, learning analytics, and really anything where students are the focus.

5 thoughts on “A Nobel laureate walks into a classroom…”

    1. Thanks – thought this might pique the attention of the physicists! No like button that I know of, but your encouraging comment and spreading good learning and teaching ideas to colleagues is better than any like!

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