Pros and Cons of Interactive Classes

A number of people have commented on the big New York Times article about the new intro physics classes at MIT:

At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but 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.

It sounds pretty cool, as it has every other time I’ve heard people present these sort of reforms. The Physics World blog, though, points out something missing from the original article: comments from students.

This is one of the frustrating things about media articles on science and science education. I’m less bothered by the occasions when journalists get technical points wrong than I am by cases like this where laziness leads to only one side really being presented. The comments to the NYT piece, which you need to click through to another page to read, include a few comments from students who took the class, and it’s only after reading those that I realized there weren’t any comments from the general student body in the article itself. The only student-perspective quote in the article was from one of the TA’s, which is hardly representative.

Now, that being said, how seriously should the negative comments really be taken? After all, the students who comment on the Times web site likely have at least as much of an axe to grind as the students who liked the course enough to become a TA.

It’s tough to tell from the negative comments themselves whether they’re being made for the right reasons or not. The negative remarks are things that could be legitimate problems, or could be sour grapes.

In particular, it’s not immediately obvious which of several student populations the commenting students are from, which makes a big difference. I could easily believe that the active-learning model could be both more effective pedagogically and also resented by students who are taking the class only because it’s required. The traditional lecture format has many problems from a student perspective, but it also offers the advantage of being easily skippable by students who aren’t interested in the subject itself, but have to take it to meet curricular requirements. A smaller, more active class might rub them the wrong way by forcing them to show up and participate more than they otherwise would have.

The classes we offer in my department tend to fall in the uneasy middle between the traditional lecture and more active modern models. We cap the class size at 18 (and offer a lot of sections), so nobody is sitting in a gigantic lecture hall dozing during physics lectures. Our academic calendar limits the amount of interactive stuff we can do, though, and forces a lot of classes into more of a lecture format. We’ve only got 30 class periods to work with (a semester calendar would have more like 45), so we need to move rapidly to get through everything that we need to cover.

Everything I’ve read suggests that the active models do a much better job of teaching the essential concepts, and in the end, that’s the most important thing, and more important than whether students liked the class format. That doesn’t mean that student opinions can be ignored altogether, though.