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Stanford Physicist Embarks On Mission To Improve Undergraduate Teaching


Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman is on a mission to revolutionize the way undergraduates are taught in the U.S. and beyond. The Stanford University physicist wants more professors to ditch the large lecture in favor of letting students wrestle with problems while an engaged teacher coaches them and tracks their progress. Wieman says the data show that these active learning practices can dramatically boost learning, so why aren't more professors in universities adopting them? NPR's Eric Westervelt brings us this report as part of our series 50 Great Teachers.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Dr. Carl Wieman long ago said goodbye to the big-lecture format and its emphasis on passively absorbing information. He was a little horrified when MOOCs, or massive open online courses, took off a few years ago. He thought, what are they doing? They're scaling and exporting to the world one of the worst parts of the college classroom, the lecture. The methods Wieman now champion center on getting students to work through questions, concepts and problems in small groups, get things wrong and then work through the whys and hows themselves with effective coaching from a professor.

CARL WIEMAN: If you got something wrong, just telling you the right answer doesn't usually help you much. It's really to go over the reasoning you used in getting that incorrect answer - that's when you're going to learn.

WESTERVELT: On Stanford University's campus, some science courses, particularly physics, reflect changes Wieman champions. On a long patch of bright grass, the countdown to liftoff has begun for a freshman physics lab.



UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: One, two, three.





WESTERVELT: Students are firing off makeshift rockets carefully crafted with plastic piping. They're trying to measure the rockets' trajectories and how mass affects the optimal angle for launch and a host of other questions the students had to come up with themselves.

JADEEP SINGH: From the start we're not really offered a definite research question.

WESTERVELT: Freshman Jadeep Singh (ph) says this kind of physics lab is different from what he's used to.

SINGH: We have to start from the ground up, decide what we want to test, how we're going to test it, build our own rockets. And there is a huge amount of benefit to that. Already I can feel kind of my analytical skills and my experimental skills kind of really sharpening.

WESTERVELT: Carl Wieman like all good scientists lives by data. The Nobel Laureate says, so far, the data on the effectiveness of active learning techniques - coaching students to be engaged co-pilots in the quest for knowledge - is so convincing it's almost unethical to teach undergraduates any other way. Studies show students taught this way more deeply understood the material. Grades improved 20 percent. Attendance dramatically improved. And course failure rates dropped by almost a third.

WIEMAN: I know you can double how much a student learns depending on what method the instructor's using.

WESTERVELT: Stanford's physics and math departments have now made big changes to the way their introductory courses are taught, but only a handful of other university departments have systemically restructured their teaching around these ideas. Wieman puts much of the blame on America's tenure system. The tenure machine is still all centered on productivity in research, not teaching, he says.

WIEMAN: Our faculty teaching using the most effective methods at Stanford versus Harvard versus Ohio State - there's no way you can find that out. They don't even look at it.

WESTERVELT: Well, you're saying higher education in America is not really interested in looking at itself and how effective its teaching practices are? That's kind of a broad indictment.

WIEMAN: You know, the facts speak for themselves. It's like you've got a hospital and you're not bothering to check if your doctors are using antibiotics or bloodletting, right (laughter)?

DAN SCHWARTZ: No, I don't think Carl's tilting at windmills at all. You need to get this in the air. You need to let people know it's possible. Somebody's got to do this.

WESTERVELT: That's Dan Schwartz, the dean of Stanford's Graduate School of Education, where Wieman splits his time with the physics department. He shares Wieman's passion for a revolution in undergraduate teaching. He's seen the data, but he has a somewhat different explanation for why the tenets of active learning have yet to be more widely embraced.

SCHWARTZ: The literature on how to do this stuff is a giant mountain of goo. I can tell people they need to teach better, but if I don't give them things that are easy for them to implement, they won't do it. And that's the same story in K-12 as it is in college.

WESTERVELT: One university that has given professors easy-to-implement tools is the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

SARA HARRIS: My first term here I saw a talk by Carl. And I thought, that's what I want to do.

WESTERVELT: That's UBC Professor Sara Harris. Wieman inspired her to put aside her paleoceanography research and dedicate herself to improving undergraduate science education. Most scientists at UBC, she says, have now dramatically changed how they teach. A big key, she says - they hired science teaching staff to work closely with busy research faculty and serve as a kind of coach and conduit for the latest education research and ideas.

HARRIS: They can observe the class as a third party and give that feedback right back to the instructor, who can then act on it right away.

WESTERVELT: But only a handful of schools have followed UBC's path. Wieman says, until universities prioritize improving teaching and make knowing how to teach a requirement for hiring and promotion, higher ed. will continue to neglect its undergraduate students. Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.