Physics Department Innovates with Student-Centered Approach

There's an interesting piece in the New York Times "At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard" (1/13/09) that details an effort by the MIT physics department to move to a more student-centered, interactive approach to instruction. Physics is not simply a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking, asking questions and discovering answers.

At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

“There was a long tradition that what it meant to teach was to give a really well-prepared lecture,” said Peter Dourmashkin, a senior lecturer in physics at M.I.T. and a strong proponent of the new method. “It was the students’ job to figure it out.”

The problem, say Dr. Dourmashkin and others in the department, is that a lot of students had trouble doing that. The failure rate for those lecture courses, even those taught by the most mesmerizing teachers, was typically 10 percent to 12 percent. Now, it has dropped to 4 percent.

… The traditional 50-minute lecture was geared more toward physics majors, said Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard who is a pioneer of the new approach, and whose work has influenced the change at M.I.T.

“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur said, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ” But for the majority, he said, a different approach is needed.

“Just as you can’t become a marathon runner by watching marathons on TV,” Professor Mazur said, “likewise for science, you have to go through the thought processes of doing science and not just watch your instructor do it.”

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