Carl Wieman Talk at UCLA

Carl Wieman Talk at UCLA

by Brian Foley -
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wieman pictHere is a summary of the talk that Carl Wieman (Nobel Prize winner in Physics, now working to improve Science education) gave at UCLA Oct 12, 2009. He previously ran the Phet project at U. Colorado – now at Univeristy of British Columbia (part time at Boulder still). [my comments in brackets]

Overview: talks about how he has changed introductory physics lectures based on research on cognition and learning.

Using the insights if science to teach/learn science

Focus on educating all students (literate public, modern economy)
Make teaching more effective, efficient and rewarding

2 models of teaching
  1. Teacher thinks hard- figures it out – then tell students – give them a problem to solve. If not success than it’s the students fault (repeat instruction)
    1. Works for very simple things but not for complex subjects
    2. Something about complex learning requires growing neurons [what?]
  2. Start with thinking about the goals [same as before?]. Design activities based on prior research. If it doesn’t work than your goals or treatment were wrong. This is the same process as science.
Data on cog psych, brain science and classroom studies leads to “scientific teaching†which has greater retention, better skills mastery and better understanding of the nature of science.

Goal – developing expertise (using data more like a scientist would)
Expert competence – factual knowledge, organized knowledge, metacognition, requires many thousands of hours to develop (massive rewiring of the brain)

Concepts are the way we organize our knowledge. FCI (force concept inventory) gain scores are good measure. Citing Hake – traditional lecture results in <30% of concepts understood.

Improved methods get into the 50-70% range [scientific teaching presumably]

Views of science are important. Novices see science as disconnected and handed down from an authority and use pattern matching to solve problems (contrast to experts). Wieman group has surveys of students' views of science: MPEX, CLASS surveys. Most intro physics courses result in students having more novice-like in views of science. (

Effective Teaching – what is it?

1. Motivation
a. Make subject relevant and useful (meaningful context)
b. Students have belief that they can master the subject
c. Students have some choice in learning (often trivial choices can increase motivation).

2. Connect to prior knowledge
a. Related to everything else

3. Using research on memory
a. Short term limitations – most ignored finding in cog science. Memory is very limited. More than 7 items results in blue screen of death. People are like PCs with limited memory (really?)
b. Reduce memory demands by less jargon (vocab is bad), use figures, analogies
c. Avoid curse of knowledge (explain everything, do example, assign problems) – better approach, start with the problem, slowly add information to help solve it. This helps with motivation too.
d. Long term retention (Bjork’s work)

4. Explicit practice on expert thinking (takes a long time)
a. Give students challenging tasks (but doable)
b. Have students create mental models
c. Recognizing relevant and irrelevant information
d. Self checking, sense making (?) and reflection
e. Timely feedback
f. Students need to know how to learn – effort alone is not enough. Good teacher is a cognitive coach to help students make sense.

Examples in practice – interactive lectures:

Ask a question (based on research to elicit expert thinking) – students respond with clickers – small group discussion – then revote – then discuss as a large group – show responses – give right answer (show simulation) – emphasize correct and incorrect reasoning.

Problem – there is not enough hours in the classroom to do this with all topics. Need to think carefully about homework

If just getting the answer to the MC question is key, then not much learning – emphasis should be on the reasoning (model). The MC is the trigger to start discussion – not the goal.

How do you deal with the diversity of students’ preparation in a typical class? Don’t know (lowest common denominator?). The discussion does help all students. Although not the same for everyone.

What do students think of the new method? There has been trouble in some classes (students revolt - low evaluations). Student buy-in is critical. We now know how to do this – key is to bring students into the process. Don’t make them think they are guinea pigs. Give them the data on why to teach this way. Make sure they know why you are doing what you are doing. You still get some unhappy (vocal) students. [helps to have that nobel thing to back you up]

Seems to work well in courses of up to 250 students - guide to effective use of clickers.