Study on Interactive Lecture in Physics Courses Slammed by NY Times

by Kelle on May 13, 2011

I’m turning into an interactive lecture evangelist. I’m not the best advocate since I was raised in the faith, rather than converting, but I’ve still been seriously trying to convince my physics colleagues and the adjuncts who teach our evening and summer Astro101 to add just at least a bit of student-centered learning to each of their lectures.

I was excited to see this article on Improving the Science of Teaching Science in the NY Times this morning, but then I read it. The piece basically takes apart a relatively small study trying to quantify the results of interactive lecture, or “deliberate practice” that are described in a ScienceNOW article: A Better Way to Teach?.

The “deliberate practice” method begins with the instructor giving students a multiple-choice question on a particular concept, which the students discuss in small groups before answering electronically. Their answers reveal their grasp of (or misconceptions about) the topic, which the instructor deals with in a short class discussion before repeating the process with the next concept.

The NY Times article, by what appears to be a psychology-focused writer, basically has a psychologist identify all the holes in the experimental design and concludes,

“I think that the authors are pioneers in exploring and testing ways we can improve undergraduate teaching and learning,” he said. “As a psychologist, I’m ashamed that it is physicists who are leading this effort, and not learning scientists.”

Did we really need that? Really, we’re finally starting to make physics classes more FUN and worthwhile and we get slammed in the NY Times by the psychologists? Sure, I could see how it’s important to mention the weaknesses of the study, but what about all the other results in the science education (and psychology?) literature about the benefits of student-centered, collaborative learning? Not a word about that. And the take home isn’t, “Physics classes might be getting better!” No, it’s, “You’re proving it wrong.”

I hope that the people who know more about this than me, the “learning scientists” who are ALSO physicists and astronomers, consider a formal response.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 secretseasons May 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

I don’t read it the same way you do, I guess. I do see a couple of potentially-valid criticisms, and then the part that you quoted reads like begrudging admiration.


2 Marshall May 13, 2011 at 10:35 am

What disappointed me about that article was that it completely misses the broader context. I suspect the average reader gets the impression that this is the first attempt, or one of the first, to quantify the benefits of interactive teaching, when it fact it’s anything but.


3 Brian May 13, 2011 at 11:43 am

I completely agree with Marshall. There are numerous studies over the last two decades showing that interactive education in physics is better at affecting students’ fundamental physical intuition.


4 Dave May 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I think there are a few things to separate here when discussing this article.

First, we should keep in mind that these are articles written about other written articles. The actual article in Science is now available and before people go and draw conclusions based on others writings about the article, go read the article for yourself.

Second, the article does seem to have many flaws, some pointed out in the NYTimes and others which weren’t. It’s fairly clear to me (a science educator) that this article (or its written-counterpart) could not possibly have been published in a scholarly science education journal (Science Education, Journal of research in Science teaching, Journal of the Learning Sciences, etc.).

Third, in talking with science educators who talk about scientists turned science educators, one of the most often heard complaints stems from scientists’ surface-scratching understanding of educational pyschology and usage of buzz words like “constructivism” or “learning theory” without qualification. Seems like turf wars to me.

Fourth, the success (or lack thereof) of this particular study, in no way, undermines the convergence of evidence in the PER/AER communities that demonstrate student-centered classrooms result in student higher learning gains than in more traditional lectures taught by Dr. Didactic. Yet, this knowledge has been known for literally decades now in the general science education community.

As you mentioned, the final quote in the NYTimes article seems largely unnecessary but I think it is really an artifact of someone who has knowledge of a particlar field and reads articles written by percieved “outsiders”. What can ya do? Not everyone is going to agree with another person’s work…it’s just that in those cases we normally don’t see such a public display of poop-flinging.


5 Vicky May 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I agree with secretseasons — I read it not as a criticism of physicists, but as a criticism of the psychologists for not doing it themselves. Although the psychologist could have made a better job of expressing what they mean, it is possible that it’s down to selective editing.


6 Louis Rubbo May 13, 2011 at 1:27 pm

It’s funny, among my facebook friends, some of us are passing around various press releases covering the original Science article. Like you, we agree that the NYTimes article is harsh and misses the point. This is especially evident when you compare it to the NPR version,

It’s nice that the NPR article went to someone else in the PER field, but outside the study.


7 Carolyn May 16, 2011 at 7:05 pm

seemed to me that this was a bit of a case of sour grapes from the author, and I think it came off that way too. Apart from anything else, psychologists/education specialists *should* be embarrassed that they’re not leading this drive – that the physicists are doing it first. Education researchers have entire departments dedicated to figuring out how to present information in a way that makes it easiest to learn, and yet we’re all still talking for an hour to roomfuls of students, lecture-style. That *should* be embarrassing.

Honestly, though, I don’t feel it’s really worth getting too worked up about. My general feeling with education and outreach is that if you’ve upset someone then you must be doing something right. The researchers involved in the original study can feel very proud that they’ve started to piss people off 🙂


8 Ryan May 25, 2011 at 11:53 pm

I really don’t see how this is “slamming” the study. The quote above praises the study and then basically says that it’s embarrassing for a psychologist that physicists are leading the way ahead of “learning scientists” (aka other psychologists who study learning). To me this seems to be slamming “learning scientists” and praising the study authors.


9 Kelle May 27, 2011 at 8:10 am

Yes, I think it’s fair to say I misinterpreted some of this article. But I think Marshall’s comment identified what really irked me about it.


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