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Put It to the Test

Put It to the Test

Can physics, one of the oldest academic disciplines in world history, be taught with a modern approach to teaching — without lectures and tests? Two faculty members weigh in.

Fall 2014

Pro Lectures/Tests

In a time when comprehensive studies have shown that instructor-student interaction is at the essence of an effective education methodology, defending traditional instruction — the prototypical education without interaction method — may seem irrational. However, we should not disregard traditional instruction in its entirety, particularly because this is a method under which a significant number of students feel most comfortable. Usually these are students who like to use the lectures as a guide and base their learning on independent study. (I was one of them.) But even for those students, lecturing can be made much more productive if interactive learning tools are included in the equation. Indeed, this is one of the solutions that we have developed over the last few years in the Physics Department, in parallel with our interaction-based instruction initiatives in order to offer UCF undergraduates the most diverse education scenario.

To be more specific, in traditional physics courses, the lab and the lecture sections are separate, and unfortunately, lectures may be given to up to 300 students at once. One can easily understand how faculty-student interaction is greatly diminished under these conditions. In addition, students often feel the lab and lecture contents are out of sync, which is unavoidable as the course advances due to calendar limitations. Scheduling all students in a lecture class into the same laboratory sections helps. But the bottom line is to make students aware of the fact that physics, like other sciences, is mainly driven by experiments and not the other way around. We have had great success in this respect at UCF. Labs are designed to be highly interactive and are supported online, so all students are prompted to work in groups during practice sessions and individually before and after their lab days. In addition, interactive tools that encourage student participation and discussion are routinely used in our lectures, definitively helping with the assimilation of the material, even in large enrollment sections.

A healthy mixture of enhanced traditional instruction and interactive-based methods may stand as a model for modern educational institutions such as UCF.

No Lectures/No Tests

After a long industrial career, I was fortunate to be hired by UCF’s Physics Department, where I have been teaching for about 10 years. When I began lecturing, I noticed that most of my students stared at me with glazed eyes. When I shared my observation with fellow faculty members, my experience wasn’t all that unusual. Physics education research has documented that the average student attending a physics lecture zones out after about 10 minutes. This is not what I would refer to as a successful process.

Enter Harvard professor Eric Mazur, who developed a successful lecture-free format for his physics course and did away with exams. This class format is used in two sections of the introductory physics course at UCF this fall. The approach requires intense student involvement utilizing learning teams, pre-reading monitoring and team-based projects.

The observation that most student learning takes place while reading a textbook suggests that the reason students may not do well in physics is that they read their textbook only when absolutely necessary, which is usually prior to an exam or a quiz. Up until now, it wasn’t possible for an instructor to verify that students were reading the material, but thanks to a program developed at MIT, it is now possible to verify the veracity with which reading is occurring. As a result, the learning is more assured, and class activity can be used to reinforce it. So, voilà, no lecture is needed!

Finally, the last component of this course format is the recognition that studying for exams produces only transient and shallow learning. So instead of exams, we use qualitative questions to analyze students’ knowledge. If a student answers incorrectly, they consult with their team and repeat the question in order to answer correctly. Most times, students are also permitted to use any reference material they wish, including the Internet. With all of the information readily available, there is no need to memorize material, and study is replaced by using the information gained in the team projects. This method mimics how engineers work on the job, giving students the opportunity to experience practical problem-solving.

 Illustration Credit: Regan Dunnick