Sunday, January 18, 2009

Engagement with Learning at MIT

I admire efforts to make classroom learning more interactive and hands-on. Earlier this week, The New York Times had an article that illustrates the potential.

The article was about MIT’s overhaul of its introductory physics classes. The classes’ old format had a professor lecturing to hundreds of students, 50 minutes at a time.

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.”

In the new format, classes are held... 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.

In addition to this excitement about learning, the new format has brought an important, measurable result: The failure rate has been cut in half.

I’m sure the quality of the classroom technology can lead to better or worse results. But I suspect that variance is dwarfed by the positive effect of simply having an interactive, collaborative environment.

That is, by giving students specific things to do in class—beyond passively receiving information that they could just cadge from the textbook—the new format is all but forcing engagement with the subject. The students who would have failed before but are now passing, they’ve always had the latent ability but now they have the engagement.

Put another way: If the only thing the technology accomplishes is to give students a reason to show up and get involved, it is still a real step forward.

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