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
The 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.”
The 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:
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.”
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.
Yet 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.