Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Active learning" or "research-based teaching" in upper level courses

This past spring Carl Wieman came to Rice's Center for Teaching Excellence, to give us this talk, about improving science pedadogy.  (This video shows a very similar talk given at UC Riverside.) He is very passionate about this, and argues strongly that making teaching more of an active, inquiry-based or research-question-based experience is generally a big improvement over traditional lecture.  I've written previously that I think this is a complicated issue. 

Does anyone in my readership have experience applying this approach to upper-level courses?  For a specific question relevant to my own teaching, have any of you taught or taken a statistical physics course presented in this mode?  I gather that PHYS 403 at UBC and PHYS 170 at Stanford have been done this way.  I'd be interested in learning about how that was implemented and how it worked - please feel free to post in comments or email me.

(Now that the semester is over and some of my reviewing responsibilities are more under control, the frequency of posting should go back up.)


JasonDeibel said...

Hi Doug,

While I am not sure if Carl would call it active learning, one of our professors has flipped his 4000 level two semester E&M sequence relying on pre-lecture videos for content and leaving class time to focus on problem solving skills. I'll talk to him and maybe introduce you all virtually. I also seem to remember a professor that I learned about at a APS/AAPT New Faculty Workshop that was teaching upper level E&M with kinesthetics (Oregon or Oregon State?). This is where she would have students physically act out some of the E&M concepts. I always wanted to explore it more but it has remained on my todo list for a long time. However, I think you might find our E&M approach interesting and will follow-up with you. Are you going to be at the APS Chairs Conference next month?

Jason Deibel said...

I also picked up Carl's new book recently and am eager to digest the summary of his work to date on active learning. - Jason

Douglas Natelson said...

Hi Jason - Thanks for the information and offer. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it to the APS Chairs conference because of a family constraint.

Chris Goedde said...

I tried to leave this yesterday, but failed ...

Since 2009 I've taught all my courses, at all levels (includes M.S. courses) using active engagement, mostly following a just-in-time teaching workflow ( This includes classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, pdes, computational physics, and the course we teach here called Thermal Physics, which is probably closest to the class you're asking about. (I used Schroeder's text for this, which I ended up disliking intensely.) I do think it's a lot better than traditional lecturing, which I did for about 15 years before switching.

The people at Colorado have a lot of materials for upper-level classes at

although none of them are for statistical physics. I've adapted some of their QM stuff for my own use.

If you have more specific questions, you can email me at my DePaul address.

Douglas Natelson said...

Thanks, Chris. I'll be in touch!

Rolando Valdes said...

Hi Doug,
I tried some of what Weiman describes in his slides in a solid state physics class for undergrads at Ohio State under the advise of our local PER group. I had the pre-lecture reading assignment, and its corresponding online quiz. As part of the quiz I asked the students to give me some feedback on what was unclear, or they would like to see more of in class. I then spent some of the lecture trying to clarify things from the reading and/or quiz. Sometimes this clarifications took half of the lecture! But I think it was very beneficial.
The students are mostly positive about this, and now after reading Weiman’s slides I got some ideas of what to add to the class next.
The bulk of the work is really in making the pre-lecture quizzes. I’ve done this three times now and I’m very happy about it.