Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The challenge of innovative teaching

On monday I went to two interesting talks at UQ by Eric Mazur.
The slides are available here.

For reasons I discuss at the end I found the talks both inspiring and discouraging.

The first talk, "Flat Space, Deep Learning" described a new course Mazur developed at Harvard, AP50, a calculus based introductory physics course for engineers. The whole goal is get students to "own their own learning". There are no lectures, just 2 three hour class sessions. The "exams" are non-traditional. Students don't do regular labs, but rather four team projects. Students have to read the relevant part of the text before class and annotate an online version with questions and answers to other students questions. Central to the course is extensive use of the Learning Catalytics software, developed by Mazur, King, and Lukoff, and subsequently sold to Pearson.

The second talk, "Teaching Physics, Conservation Laws First" was an infomercial for Mazur's new text (s), Principles and Practice of Physics. It takes quite an original approach, which is described in this video.

Key changes from traditional courses are to put concepts before mathematics.
The central features include

* start with conservation principles. this means that one can solve many problems with algebra not calculus. Conservation of kinetic energy in elastic collisions is derived from the empirical observation of "conservation of relative velocity". [Aside: I got confused about this. I tried to derive it, and found that the relative velocity is not "conserved" but "reversed" by the collision].

* do everything in one dimension for the first 10 chapters. this delays the introduction of vector notation.

* emphasise the role of symmetry and the concept of a system.

* introduce entropy before heat, using a microscopic approach. [I agree on former but not the latter but that is another matter].

* physically realistic diagrams play a central role.

Overall I found the presentations both inspiring, challenging, and discouraging.
It was inspiring to see that the data shows that Mazur really does get the students to engage with the material, learn something, and have fun!

The challenge is to find ways to implement these ideas in your own situation.
What works and is possible at Harvard does not easily translate to elsewhere.
This relates both to the nature of the student body and the resources available to faculty.

Students at Harvard are pretty uniformly highly gifted and highly motivated and with strong academic backgrounds and social skills. [When I was a TA at Princeton I did encounter a few exceptions!] Given the right environment and prods they will rise to a challenge.
In contrast, at UQ [which is one of the better universities in Australia and as our management and marketing department endlessly reminds us is "ranked" in the top 100 globally] physics students are quite diverse in their gifting, their academic backgrounds, motivations, and work ethic.
Getting them to "own their education" is not easy.
Yet, some of my colleagues in Physics at UQ have implemented some of Mazur's ideas about the "flipped classroom" and "peer based instruction".

Previously I posted about how I gave up on some innovations, particularly in assessment (relatively tame compared to Mazur's) for an advanced fourth year class due to complaints from students.

What about resources?
Mazur was given a year off teaching in order to develop the course. He seems to teach it with a colleague (whose only responsibility is teaching) and to have one full-time TA for every 20 students.
Mazur also runs a successful research group which probably partly runs on "auto pilot" because it is populated with highly gifted and motivated grad students and postdocs.
Yet, he did offer two valuable qualifiers. First, a similar course is being implemented at University of Central Florida which is much less resource rich! Second, his work is "front loaded", i.e. extensive in setting up the course, but less to actually run it.

These differences from Harvard are not reason to keep with old methods that are of limited value. They just should be kept in mind when trying to implement them.

These innovations also illustrate to me how problematic MOOC's are. From traditional instruction, they keep what does not work [lectures] and throw away what does work [personal interaction between students in small groups].

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