Active Learning with Carl E. Wieman: Don’t Lecture Me!

Carl E. Wieman, Nobel Laureate in Physics 2001, during his Master Class on ‘Teaching Physics’ at #LINO19.

Traditionally, every Nobel Laureate may give a lecture on a topic of his or her choice at a Lindau Meeting. There are, however, also very many occasions for small group discussions and social interaction. We asked all Nobel Laureates for ideas on how to improve the programme, and Carl E. Wieman made the most radical suggestion: Get rid of all lectures. Next year, more than 60 Nobel Laureates will come to Lindau – and none of them should be allowed to give a lecture?

This idea of Wieman can be easily understood in the context of the decades of research that he has undertaken into how to teach (physics) most effectively. Some of the most eye-catching results were published in the seminal Science journal article ‘Improved learning in a large-enrolment physics class’. So how does active learning work – and is it really better than currently used methods? What are its strengths, what are its weaknesses?

Carl Wieman is quick to point out that he neither invented active learning nor has he developed a special ‘Wieman method’. Rather, the technique is used by people across the world and it has been described in a large number of studies and publications.

Simply put, the idea behind active learning is that the brain needs to exercise continuously to form new neural connections, which strengthen decision-making and in doing so rewire the brain. Passively listening to lectures does not help the brain to exercise, actively thinking about right or wrong explanations and paths to follow does.

In science and engineering fields, decisions to be exercised and made are usually: What concepts and models are relevant? What information is relevant, irrelevant or needed? What approximations are appropriate? What method(s) can be used to pursue potential solutions? What criteria can be used to test results? Wieman also claims that active learning works equally well in non-STEM disciplines.

Active learning methods have been implemented in various departments and courses, including the Science Education Initiative headed by Wieman at the University of British Columbia, Canada. The vast majority of active learning cases have involved implementation at the (undergraduate) university level in the United States – so the obvious questions are a) is the approach applicable to other levels, and b) is it transferable to other countries and cultures?

Wieman tells the anecdote of how he once explained his method at the University of Tokyo, and all faculty members told him that this would never work in Japan because of cultural differences. However, when he was talking directly to and with the students they very actively engaged in the discussion and did not hesitate at all to engage in active learning. It seems that even though teaching practices may vary widely around the world, learning may be more universal. “It is all about changing the norms of the classroom”, concludes Wieman.

As for earlier stages of education, such as kindergarten or elementary school, he admits that not a lot of research data are available and that active learning definitely becomes more difficult to measure because there are many more factors in play and environments are not as controllable as those in a university setting. The cognitive and neural mechanisms of active learning should, however, apply equally to all ages in principle.

John Rogers, dean of studies at Phillips Academy Andover, USA, notes that some version of active learning is absolutely the norm at institutions like the one he is teaching at, and teachers no longer just practice lecture-style instruction and set tests. But is that also the norm at public schools and regular universities? In any case, Carl Wieman claims that it is not a question of money. Active learning requires some extra training for the teachers, but does not cost more money or require more time than traditional teaching. It also works with large class sizes up to several hundred students. Further, all educators who have been trained in active learning prefer the method to their previous approach.

Leslie Medema, head of the Green School in Bali, has a lot of practical experience with active learning. At her institution, teachers and students jointly decide what and how they are learning. But she reminds us that not all students are the same, and that some are more introvert than others and need other ways of being taught. “For a majority of students, active learning is probably most powerful, but we can’t forget about those of us who sat in that back row”, says Medema.

Additionally, Wieman points to the issue of measuring the quality of teaching overall: “Right now, the evaluation of teaching is extremely, to put it diplomatically, terrible.” “Without a good assessment, we can’t really measure if we are doing what we are trying to do”, adds John Rogers. But Michael Schratz, professor of education at Innsbruck University, Austria, emphasises another point: “If you only use evaluation sheets, what evidence is that? It is an immediate impression, but it is not about the sustainability of knowledge, and this is what matters.” Carl Wieman agrees because he has done some research spanning a two-year period (where students taught with active learning methods still perform better). However, studying the long-term effects of teaching  methods is very complicated.

What we need to learn has dramatically changed over the past couple of hundred years, from algebra and writing to very complex and extensive topics that are currently taught at universities. The question remains: Why have teaching methods not changed accordingly to adapt to this new complexity?

The full article is part of the 2019 Nature Outlook  edition on ‘Physical Oceanography’ featuring discussions and participants of the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting. The supplements could be produced thanks to the support of Mars, Incorporated. Additonal videos on active learning, including the documentary ‘Don’t Lecture Me!’, are available on our website.