October 29, 2021 | NEWS | By Iona Ellsworth

This block’s first Monday presentation was particularly useful for and relevant to students and professors at Colorado College. Carl Wieman, a physics professor at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, spoke at length on the scientifically proven benefits of an experimental approach to education.

Wieman began his talk by providing some context for his interest in the subject. “[I was] quite puzzled as I saw these physics graduate students coming to work in my lab who had had many years of success,” Wieman said. “And yet, they’d be really clueless about how to [actually] do physics.”

Wieman suspected that the issue was not with the students themselves, but rather with the ways in which they had been taught to learn. His research led him to conduct controlled experiments of his own, in which he focused on what he called “expertise, or the kinds of thinking that a good scientist or engineer does.”

As Weiman explained, most models of higher education assume that students arrive to the classroom with different capabilities, and that it is the professor’s job to identify which students are stronger learners than their peers. Wieman believes this assumption is fundamentally misguided.

“New research says that the educational process is actually a process of transforming [students’] brains [by] changing the neurons in response to intense thinking,” said Wieman. “It’s actually this rewired brain that gives the brain improved capabilities.”

Wieman’s research shows that the brain functions much like an athlete’s muscles do and requires similar training to achieve its full learning potential. “What’s really critical is the type of exercise you’re giving the brain to practice the right kinds of thinking and doing it over long periods of time,” Wieman said. 

Data from college classrooms support Wieman’s claims. As a part of his research, Wieman separated a large introductory physics class into two sections. “One [section] was given a very experienced professor with a standard lecture approach,” Wieman said. “The experimental class had a [professor with a] fairly new PhD but he’d been trained in my program with the principles and methods of research-based teaching.”

The research-based approach focuses on the actual processes of learning. Students were tested on the material they learned in class and then prompted to discuss their answers with their peers before being re-tested. “While they were [discussing], the instructor [was] circulating up and down the aisles, listening in on conversations,” Wieman said, “getting an idea of what aspects of student thinking were like a physicist, and what aspects were [headed] in the wrong direction.” 

The next stage of Wieman’s experiment involved the professor showing the students the correct results and providing them with an analysis on their modes of thinking. 

“This is something that cognitive psychologists have shown is really where learning happens,” Wieman said. “It [happens] when you understand why something is incorrect, and how to change that while solving new problems.”

The implementation of Wieman’s three-tiered method of individual, collective and targeted feedback coincided with significantly higher test scores in the experimental group as opposed to the lecture-based group. 

“There [was] a profound difference between the two classes,” Wieman said. “Sitting there listening to somebody talk does not develop much learning.”

Wieman concluded his talk by giving students and teachers advice on maximizing learning in and out of the classroom. 

“What does this mean about teaching?” Wieman said. “It means the students need to practice making these kinds of problem-solving decisions in authentic problem contexts for the discipline.” 

Students can also continue to practice these principles outside of the classroom. Wieman advised all students “to go home and practice thinking about how [they] would explain new material to someone else, like a younger sibling, for example.” 

Wieman took some time to answer audience questions after the presentation was over. One CC student asked him how to use their time most effectively in the event of a lecture. In response, Wieman urged students to “do a lot of processing of the material [and think,] ‘What kinds of problem-solving decisions would I make using this?’”

Another CC student was curious about how to apply these concepts to the content-heavy curriculum of the Block Plan. Wieman cited the fact that on average, only 10% of the material covered in undergraduate curriculums is retained by students, and that instructors should focus more on quality and less on quantity. 

“The goal is to have the student develop the capability of learning things effectively,” Wieman said. 

There’s no question that Wieman gave the CC community food for thought when it comes to the most effective modes of instruction in higher education. Wieman’s talk exposed the weaknesses of a purely content-based curriculum and opened the doors to a new, and perhaps better, way of teaching in the process. 

Leave a Reply