From the Desk of the Chancellor, March 22, 2010
March 22, 2010
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Earlier this month, Carl Wieman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics 2001 and the Carnegie Foundation’s U.S. University Professor of the Year Award in 2004, visited IUPUI. Nearly 200 people attended the public event, one of three talks he gave on research-based teaching in college science courses, sponsored by the IUPUI Center for Teaching and Learning Winter Lecture Series.
Professor Wieman did not receive the Nobel for discovering a new atomic particle but rather for developing a more precise way to measure its characteristics. Now he has turned his attention to measuring learning outcomes in science classes.He says the state of science education today is like what medical practice was 150 years ago. It is the equivalent of blood-letting. A few survive so it must be the right thing to do. Just as science informed the improved practice of medicine, so should effective educational practices be informed by systematic research on learning.
For more than 10 years now, Professor Wieman has studied the what, why, and how of student learning. Like best-selling author David Schenk, who wrote The Genius in All of Us, Wieman says the myth of child prodigies doesn’t hold up to research. From his own experience, he came to realize that you become good at something by working intently on it with focus and determination. Parental encouragement helps. Coaching and guidance helps. But ultimately, it is motivation, a passion for learning, and persistent focus on improvement through practice that over time will yield mastery of a subject. The job of the educator is to stimulate motivation by finding ways to show the relevance and value of a subject. Why is this topic is worth learning? How does it connect to things the student already knows? If we think it important enough to be part of the college curriculum, educators must find ways to get information across to all students regardless of background or prior interest in the subject.
Professor Wieman’s research proves that stimulating active thinking rather than passive listening is the most effective way to engage students. He has cited our own Gregor Novak and Andy Gavrin, whose work on Just-in-Time Teaching techniques in physics has proven to be a successful technology-based strategy for measuring learning. Professor Wieman’s own physics-oriented scientific method to outcomes-based assessment is a basic calculation. Find out what the experts know. Find out what novices know. Measure the difference. After that, determine what portion of that you want the student to learn (desired outcome), then what they have learned from your teaching, and then how to recalibrate as necessary teaching techniques best designed to produce learning.
For those who missed Professor Wieman’s visit, I recommend an engaging interview on the Nobel Prize web site in which he discusses his views and his post–Nobel Prize quest to transform science education, department by department, in universities across the U.S. and beyond.
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