Study Shows Interactive Teaching Methods Double Learning in Physics Classroom

Interactive teaching methods significantly improved attendance and doubled both engagement and learning in a large physics class, according to a University of British Columbia study involving University of Colorado Boulder Distinguished Professor Carl Wieman that is being published today in Science.

Led by Louis Deslauriers, a post-doctoral researcher at UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, or CWSEI, the study compared the amount of learning students experienced when taught by traditional lecture and by using interactive activities based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education. The teaching took place for three hours over one week.

The research team found that students in the interactive class were nearly twice as engaged as their counterparts in the traditional class. Students from the experimental class uniformly scored nearly twice as well in a test designed to determine their grasp of complex physics concepts, 74 percent compared to 41 percent, with random guessing producing a score of 23 percent. Attendance in the interactive class also increased by 20 percent during the experiment.

“There is overwhelming evidence how much teaching pedagogy based on cognitive psychology and education research can improve science education,” says study co-author Wieman. “This study further shows that we can achieve individual attention without individual interaction, and that even in a large class, the positive effects of a tutor or apprenticeship model can be achieved by using evidence-based teaching methods.”

Carl Wieman. Image credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

In 2007, Wieman moved from Boulder to British Columbia to take a faculty position at UCB, retaining a 20 percent faculty appointment at CU-Boulder as a distinguished professor to head up a comprehensive science education project known as CU-SEI.

Wieman, who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics with colleague Eric Cornell for creating a new form of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate, currently is Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was involved with the new Science magazine study last year before going on leave from UBC and CU-Boulder to take the White House appointment.

“In addition to the objective measurements of engagement, attendance and test scores, we also surveyed students and found that these teaching methods generated a lot of excitement in class, which makes for a great learning environment,” said Deslauriers, lead author of the study.

In the study, two classes of an undergraduate physics course with approximately 270 students each were taught by highly rated professors with decades of experience. In the second-to-last week of the second semester, the instructor of one of the classes was replaced by Deslauriers and Ellen Schelew, a master’s student in the department of physics at UBC. Deslauriers and Schelew had been trained by Wieman and other CWSEI researchers in interactive, evidence-based teaching methods but otherwise had little teaching experience beyond serving as teaching assistants.

During the experimental week, Deslauriers and study co-author Schelew gave no formal lecturing but guided students through a series of activities that had previously been shown to enhance learning, such as paired and small group discussions and active learning tasks, which included the use of remote-control “clickers” to provide feedback for in-class questions.

Pre-class reading assignments and quizzes were also given to ensure students were prepared to discuss course material upon arrival in class. “These activities require more work from the students, but the students report that they feel they are learning more and are more vested in their own learning,” said Schelew.

“This study is designed specifically to gauge the impact of interactive teaching methods in a large undergraduate physics class, and the results present a very clean comparison to the traditional lecture method,” said Wieman.

At CU-Boulder, the Science Education Initiative, known as CU-SEI, has helped incorporate research-based teaching practices into more than 55 courses in five science departments. For more information on CU-SEI, visit

Since 2007, more than 20,000 UBC students have been affected by the CWSEI through the transformation of courses. For more information on the CWSEI, visit

*Source: University of Colorado at Boulder (Published on May 12, 2011)

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