Article Review: “Improved Learning in a Large-Entrollment Physics Class”

The article, “Improved Learning In A Large-Enrollment Physic Class” (Louis Deslauriers, 2011) discusses the effect the “deliberate practice” style of teaching has on a post-secondary, introductory, physics class. The study compared the results from replacing a traditional lecture with “deliberate practice” for 1 week worth of lectures. The results showed a significant difference in test performance between the control and experiment groups on an optional test but it is not clear as to what the increased performance in the experiment group can be attributed to. However, the difference is so large that, if the study holds to peer review, traditional lectures should be significantly decreased in their use. Personally, it takes more energy to engage in intense critical thought for an hour rather than sit in a lecture but I learn much better in a “deliberate practice” environment. 

The idea of deliberate practice comes from a 1993 study on cognitive psychology. It describes a scenario where students are forced to work through difficult problems and use scientific reasoning as opposed to a standard lecture where students attend and follow along with note-taking. The study took two introductory physics classes that had been taught using a standard lecture model supplemented with clicker questions. The control class was left alone except for the optional test that was given after the week long experiment. The experiment class was changed from a lecture style to the first half of the class being clicker questions and instructor feedback then groupwork with instructor feedback. All students were given 3% of the course grade as extra credit for participating in clicker questions, taking the test and for the experiment group, handing in their groupwork. 211 students took the optional test in the experiment class and 171 did so in the control with average scores being 74% and 41% respectively. 

The results suggest that a “deliberate practice” method of teaching is much more effective than a standard lecture style in high-enrollment, introductory physics classes. However, it is not clear whether the results can be attributed solely to the teaching style. The experiment class had more incentive to be more engaged during the class because part of their bonus points were given to completion of in-class groupwork. It is possible that the requirement to hand in in-class notes would yield similar results but unlikely because note-taking is less engaging than problem solving. Also, it is possible that students would normally wait until graded tests or midterms to engage in their own deliberate practice with their peers to study. It is possible that standard lectures over a semester are more effective because students receive lecture as well as their own deliberate practice but students in a semester-long, deliberate practice-style course would opt out of a second round of deliberate practice before their tests and have a net loss of the lectures. It is also possible that many students slip through the cracks in lecture courses because they cannot find a group of peers to schedule their own deliberate practice sessions. 

Personally, so much of my effort in lectures is focused on trying to pay attention that I have little attention left to actually pay attention. The amount of knowledge that I already have on the subject relates to my ability to engage during lecture. Too little and I am hopelessly lost, too much and I am bored to sleep. I wonder the percentage of students that have a given lecture in their zone of proximal development. I would much rather have 1 on 1 time with a graduate student than attend a lecture. The deliberate practice style of teaching sounds much more effective. There would definitely be resistance from students; working on difficult problems takes much more effort than taking notes, but only until the practice became wide-spread. 

Education reforms extremely slowly. New teachers draw on their previous teachers for guidance and the ones who want to be teachers are the ones that did well in the current system. Instead of holding teachers accountable to imperfect assessment tools we should be subsidizing districts who implement new styles of teaching based on research. However, research in education needs to be extensively peer-reviewed before implementation so that the results can be attributed to the correct variables. This is exemplified in this study where the high results could come from a number of places. 

Reference List

Louis Deslauriers, L. D. (2011, May 13). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332, 862-864. DOI: http://www.sciencemag.org

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