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At MIT – The Slow Death of the Classroom Lecture

Jodi Hilton, writing for the New York Times, begins her discussion of a fundamental change in the teaching methodology for the introductory physics course at MIT thus:

“For as long as anyone can remember, introductory physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was taught in a vast windowless amphitheater known by its number, 26-100.”

True of Most Large Universities
DrgandyThe sentence was striking as I did not attend MIT. But as a math major and physics minor, the image of 26-100 was the same as that of Bennett Hall and the extraordinarily large amphitheater-like lecture room that was my home thirty plus years ago.

I do not know how many students the room could seat – but somewhere between three and four hundred would not have been an exaggeration. And it was full for first semester physics and calculus, and it was nearly full for the second semester of those courses.

And while additional semesters were often held there, beginning with the third semester of each those courses they could have been held in smaller halls. That was because of the winnowing out of those who simply did not have what it took to be able to survive the demands as structured.

According to Hilton, at MIT it was “as many as 300 freshmen” who sat in 26-100 who “anxiously took notes while the professor covered multiple blackboards with mathematical formulas and explained the principles of Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism.”

A Monumental Change
Today, MIT has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture course with smaller classes. As befitting the latest in teaching methodology, the course is now taught with a hands-on, interactive, and collaborative learning approach.

Hilton is quick to point out that M.I.T. is not alone in the change. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, North Carolina State University, the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Harvard, physicists “have been pioneering teaching methods drawn from research showing that most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning.”

However, high school physics teachers will likely find the new format at MIT beyond the realm of comprehension. Hilton describes:

“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.”

TEALThe new approach at M.I.T. is called TEAL (Technology-Enhanced Active Learning) and the two classrooms cost around $2.5 million each.

The Day the Lecture Died
Once upon a time, the process of teaching physics at MIT (and elsewhere) involved a well-prepared lecture, delivered by a subject matter expert. If the professor was special, he not only was an expert, he had a little shtick that made the entire 50 minute ordeal a little less painful.

Of course, another name for the format was sit and get. Interaction with the professor was nonexistent, questions of understanding and of curiosity took place back at the dorm when fellow classmates attempted to piece together the information they had been presented.

Of course that process worked because the students made it work. At least for those who could make it work. As I noted before, surviving deep into these programs was a sign of intellectual prowess – not everyone was able to do so.

Hilton quotes Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard, regarding the prior practice:

infidelic“The people who wanted to understand,” Professor Mazur is quoted, “had the discipline, the urge, to sit down afterwards and say, ‘Let me figure this out.’ ”

Maybe at Harvard or MIT they could all figure it out eventually with effort. That was not true for everyone at my state college.

Mazur indicates the majority of students need a much different approach.

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

Teachers Mimic

Of course the other piece of the puzzle is that some of the students exposed to the prior methodology went on to become teachers (yours truly). When those individuals began teaching such courses they did what most would expect, they used the very same methodologies that they had been exposed to.

Yes, the very methods that led to attrition at the collegiate level, a weeding out of students who had not made the grade, often were used with students of even lesser skill level.

Fortunately today we know better – we know that “sit and get” is not a great classroom strategy.

PinelifeYet in classrooms without the requisite technology, the white boards and the assistants, it can be easy to fall back on the lecture format. In fact, the more sophisticated the material, the more difficult it is to stay away from the lecture format.

And With Change

Of course, while it was exciting to read about the positive changes at MIT, there was one small piece of the article that stood out in enormous contrast. It in fact leaped from the screen as I read.

“Of the core science curriculum required of all freshmen, only introductory physics follows the new method. Math, biology and chemistry are still taught through large lecture classes and small recitations.”

And even within the physics department, the “debate over teaching methods continues. Younger professors tend to be more enthusiastic about TEAL than veterans who have been perfecting their lectures for decades.”

But, even at MIT, it is only a slow death.

Flickr photos courtesy of drgandy, infidelic and pinelife.

3 comments

1 joseph thibault { 01.15.09 at 1:07 pm }

Interesting to see such a slow death from such a progressive institution. I can only imagine that $ is one of the reasons they aren’t leaping to fully integrated TEAL classrooms.

It’d be interesting to sit through one of the new sessions to get a feel for the difference, but I imagine that the course is actually FUN for the students. I got the most out of our physics experiments in HS…

2 mrsdurff { 01.15.09 at 7:26 pm }

Is 80 students really a small class? Is it even an ideal class size? If I were shelling out the $ for an MIT education, I would expect far better. Don’t the freshmen?

3 jim { 01.28.09 at 8:15 pm }

Some “sit and gets” are great, especially with a savvy professor who knows the students intuitively; as long as an instructor makes the lesson relevant and cares to break it down simply we all can get it. The “get” part is most tricky to ensure; most of us got the sit part down in elementary school (OK, not me entirely). :-)

Focus on the teaching style, not the size of the room or the techy equipment. We need great teachers, not great rooms :-)

The max I ask for is ergonomic tables for tests, and some form of essay delivery to make a test more easier to write on the hands. Oh, and remove weird distractions like the door right behind the prof in a lecture hall which opens in inconvenient times.
A poorly dressed instructor could mess up the lesson entirely too! Who needs an old tramp to teach? S/he distracts from an exciting lesson. It is the type of tangent I almost hate! (Did I just go off on a tangent here? )

LOL – great piece.

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