Twisting the Ivory Tower (OR Change in university physics )

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 25, 2008

[[AAPT Session: Transforming University Physics Departments]]

This (VERY LONG) post is primarily for college teachers.

Many of us are questioning whether the way we teach science at the university level is the best way to do it. Do we really want to perpetuate the current system, which rewards students who can perform abstract calculations with aplomb, but can’t answer basic conceptual questions about the same topics? Those who want to urge a different way of teaching at the college level, however, face the sluggish inertia of our country’s venerable institutions of scholarship and learning. Universities change slowly, and with good reason – academia is our culture’s knowledge factory, and so it should be conservative. The nature of what we produce in academic science – evidence-based knowledge – requires a conservative and skeptical faculty. We don’t take every scientific fad that comes along, the scientific establishment is slow to change. But we’re much slower to change the way we teach science at the university level than we are to change our scientific models.

Part of the problem is that faculty don’t often apply the same scientifically rigorous approach to their teaching as they do to their scientific scholarship – ie., methods based on empirically-based repeatable experiments. Faculty generally use teaching methods based on personal beliefs, don’t assess the results of their teaching, and pay more attention to the anecdotes of their neighbor than the peer-reviewed literature. They don’t read the education research literature (not surprising) and doubt its generality. Now, I must say, I personally don’t believe that education research has the same level of “truthiness” as does research in the natural sciences. It’s psychological research, essentially, which is inherently limited in its validity. But, there are still some common themes that have been shown over and over again to increase student learning of the material (such as the effectiveness of peer instruction). There are things that we know about how to best educate our students.

These are all questions that we’re wrestling with at Colorado – if anybody has any thoughts, please add them in the comments. I’ll be publishing something for university faculty on this subject, so the more input I have, the better.

This session at AAPT examined how several universities have changed the culture of how physics is taught in their department. These may serve as lessons for the rest of us.

Note that there’s a brand new wiki starting up at to establish the content for a User’s Guide to change in STEM education. If you’ve got experience in this area, get involved with the wiki!

How have others transformed their departments?

John Belcher – TEAL at MIT

Technology-enabled active learning (TEAL) uses a system of lecture, followed by students predicting the outcome of an experiment. The experiment is done and then followed by a computer visualization of the experiment to highlight its salient features. They use a version of SCALE-UP (students in small groups at tables working together with instructor at the middle) along with Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction, with the added emphasis on visualizations. You can download their great visualizations for electricity & magnetism here.

University of Illinois – Tim Stelzer
They changed their introductory physics course to use peer instruction and online homework. They used a team-teaching approach, where two or three faculty were responsible for planning and implementing all aspects of the course (ie., they were all responsible for lecture, rather than having one in charge of lecture and one in charge of recitations). They adapted and built on work created by others. You don’t need to recreate the wheel, he said, but you do need to adapt existing materials to your own situation.

Why change?

At MIT, they changed the way physics was taught in part due to strong pressure: There was a high failure rate in the department, and a board member actively complained that something had to change. Students also didn’t attend the lectures – which is apparently part of the student culture at MIT. John Belcher told his own story – he was an extremely popular lecturer, he worked hard and students rated him very well, but still, nobody came to class and he failed a large portion of students. His average attendance rate was just 50%!

At the University of Illinois, they were also facing serious critiques of their course which sparked change – in fact, the engineering department was no longer going to require the introductory course anymore.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what if there’s no crisis? How do we justify the need for change? This was the topic of Laurie McNeil’s talk. She’s written a delightful (but long!) Physics Manifesto summarizing the rationale and road to change. Definitely take a look if you’re interested in this, they’ve got a wealth of experience).

Opportunities to change

While there are reasons to change, what sorts of things let a department change? At MIT, first of all, they got a bunch of money. They also had a pariah senior faculty willing to devote the 80 hrs per week to lead the changes. Dr. Belcher admitted that it burned him out took him a few years to recover.

The University of Illinois didn’t want any such superman to lead the forms – rather, they gathered a small group of faculty who were interested in supporting the reforms. This was supported by the administration, who gave the faculty teaching release time in order to develop the new course. Having transformed a single course myself, I can attest that this is absolutely necessary – you can’t transform a course while attending to all the regular duties that a faculty member is responsible for.

So, some of the key ideas of what helped these departments change were:

  • external funding
  • important people who supported the change
  • data showing that traditional methods weren’t working
  • Friendly competition between faculty – if Dr. XXX was successful in teaching this way, so can I!
  • Having a group of committed individuals
  • Having one committed individual

Faculty training was particularly important, as it was important for instructors to be familiar with the content of the new course. This can take a lot of time.

Barriers to change

The common themes for what made change difficult were:

  • Faculty lacking knowledge or experience about teaching methods
  • Faculty resisting change
  • TA’s resisting change
  • Students resisting change
  • Only a few individuals supporting change
  • Lack of resources (such as classroom space or money)

Many of these are situational, not just about certain “curmudgeonly” individuals! So, change to university courses requires attacking some of the situational constraints.

It is also important to adapt a curriculum to your particular institution. For instance, if you have a small faculty:student ratio, perhaps having a large number of student groups won’t work, or maybe you have to add some undergraduate learning assistants to help with managing student discussion in the groups. In the same vein, in order to transfer curricular materials to another institution, it’s important to provide a list of all the resources necessary to teach that course, so the new instructors are prepared.

Reactions to change

At MIT, students reacted really positively to the pilot test of the new course, but when they ran the full blown course, the students actually petitioned against the changes. What went wrong? For one, the students at MIT just didn’t want to come to lecture! That was not part of the student culture at the institution. They found that having professionals assess that students were learning more, even though they didn’t like it, was critical in convincing the department to keep the changes. They now have 80% attendance, compared to a typical 50% attendance for most general requirement courses at MIT. Another thing they found was that it was critical to train the faculty properly in how to run the new course in order to have it go smoothly.

What about the faculty? They certainly agree that it’s a good thing to have students coming to class, as well as to have more resources going into the freshman courses. There is still faculty resistance, however – they want to lecture more and are worried students aren’t synthesizing the material without their explanations. Others, though, think that teaching this way gives students a more intellectually deep understanding of the material. In general, he’s found, the younger faculty are the most enthusiastic about the changes. Laurie McNeil also said that physicists have pretty healthy egos and don’t really take direction well. And after all, why change? They get rewarded in the current structure with teaching awards. It’s easier to change newer teachers whose teaching methods are less well-established and who don’t stand to lose face by trying something new.

At UNC, similarly, Laurie McNeil found that faculty didn’t really change their teaching style that much, and TA’s were even more conservative (after all, they don’t have a lot of power in the department). The students, however, were the ones who were most resistant. This is a common theme. Denis Rancourt from U. of Ottawa told us that his students told him that they couldn’t learn unless they he forced them to.

At U. Illinois, on the other hand, they found that both students and TA’s were quite happy with the reforms, and the student ratings of their TA’s increased.

In a different session, a faculty member mentioned the “Jerry Lewis effect” of curricular reform — you may be more popular elsewhere than you are at home. In other words, it maybe harder to get someone local who shares your vision of how the materials that you’ve created will be used, whereas someone at another institution may buy-in much more easily.

How to keep change going


There was some disagreement on the panel whether it’s important to have someone in charge of the reforms – a pariah instructor dedicated to the effort – or whether that was actually harmful in terms of sustainability.

The University of Illinois said that now that the work has been done to make the changes part of the course, it has a certain inertia, it will keep going like a massive aircraft carrier. However, one audience member asked him if this is a frictionless aircraft carrier? He pointed out that education reform efforts tend to devolve, you have to keep putting energy into it to keep it going.

Many agreed that it helps to have data showing the effectiveness of the reforms (like increased student learning and attendance), as well as to have people at other institutions doing the same thing. Both validate the kind of work you are doing.

The other problem of sustainability relates to the perspective of individual faculty. The university culture is that a particular person “owns” a course, and so when someone else teaches the course then they don’t necessarily use the other person’s materials. University faculty are incredibly independent beasts – they were hired, after all, for their intellectual merit. So, it wouldn’t be appropriate to expect an instructor to adopt course materials wholesale – that is counter to the university culture. Faculty need to have creativity and power in their own classroom, so that they’re excited about teaching the course and feel that they own it and understand why things are being done in a particular way in the course. How can we create our mateials so that this is the case?


Ciro July 26, 2008 at 9:15 am

Your entire blog is fascinating!!
Thank you for the knowledge your share!

sciencegeekgirl July 26, 2008 at 10:43 am

Wow, thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying it — I sure am.

Deirdre August 3, 2008 at 2:40 pm

This is a great article and needs to be submitted to the Active Learning Blog Carnival, a monthly, edited journal. I need more articles like this.

sciencegeekgirl August 3, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Hello Deirdre,

I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Will you be linking to it from your blog or were you requesting that I submit it somehow?

I will likely be writing more articles of this type, and hope to write some for a broader educator audience (such as in the J of College Science Teaching or the NSTA journals). So, stay tuned, and I’ll try to let you know when something relevant gets posted.

I”ve subscribed to your blog, which looks right up my alley, and look forward to reading it.

Thanks for the note!


sciencegeekgirl August 5, 2008 at 1:27 pm

I just found a useful link on institutional change in science education:

It’s quite detailed, for anyone interested in this it’s a good resource.

John Belcher September 5, 2008 at 11:37 am

I presented at the session you are blogging about. This is a great summary, with pertintent links. I found it because someone was asking me about it and I put the title of the session in to google, and up this pops. I send along the link to the person asking. Very nice. Keep up the good work!

Dewey Dykstra September 6, 2008 at 7:28 am

Possibly the most central factor in change in teaching (at any level) is why the instructor teaches. Curiously, why college professors say they teach and how they actually teach tell you different stories. In my experience most college science instructors say they want their students to like science as a result of their teaching.

But, they don’t teach as if this is the case. Instead they follow the folk theory of teaching. The folk theory states: science teaching is the presentation of the established canon by approved methods for the benefit of the deserving. The ‘deserving’ are known by whether they can repeat back what was presented. If they cannot, it is their fault. Science as a process and a practice is assiduously withheld from students by spending all course time in presentation of someone else’s claims of truth.

Until an instructor lets go of the folk theory mentality and focuses on the construction of deep understanding by students, real change in teaching, more importantly real change in learning, is doomed to be limited.

Just some comments from an old geezer who has been disturbed by the overwhelming evidence of such little change in understanding in science by so many students since he was a young whippersnapper. (Evidence? Published literature: )

Dewey Dykstra September 6, 2008 at 7:30 am

Sorry looks like my web link at the end of my comment was lost. Here it is:

Bob Beichner September 6, 2008 at 8:10 am

Very interesting blog. Easy to read and hard to refute. Thanks for posting it.

I do have one correction, however. SCALE-UP originated at NC State, not UNC-Chapel Hill. And as far as I know, Laurie McNeil hasn’t taught a SCALE-UP version of a course yet. However, under her very able leadership (she is Department Head there), several folks in Chapel Hill are in the process of planning a pilot SCALE-UP classroom. Laurie is also spearheading a bold plan for physics teacher education that is worth investigating if you are interested in such things. Anyway, check out the SCALE-UP website if you want to learn more. Send me an email ( if you want to become a registered website member, which gives you access to instructional materials and lots of other details for setting up a student-centered active learning environment. Otherwise, feel free to browse the public areas and see some nice classroom photos.

sciencegeekgirl September 6, 2008 at 9:36 am

Thank you for the correction, Bob, and for the additional thoughts, Dewey.

You can see my complete post on the “Folk Theory of Physics Teaching” that Dewey mentions here:

And I have several other posts from Dewey’s fabulous workshop “Beyond Piaget” which gets into many of these very issues of how and *why* we teach, including getting students to predict the results of an experiement (*really* predict it), and the idea that science is constructed of mental models of reality. You can read all those posts here:

Nic V September 7, 2008 at 5:29 pm

You write,
“Part of the problem is that faculty don’t often apply the same scientifically rigorous approach to their teaching as they do to their scientific scholarship – ie., methods based on empirically-based repeatable experiments. Faculty generally use teaching methods based on personal beliefs, don’t assess the results of their teaching, and pay more attention to the anecdotes of their neighbor than the peer-reviewed literature. They don’t read the education research literature (not surprising) and doubt its generality. Now, I must say, I personally don’t believe that education research has the same level of “truthiness” as does research in the natural sciences. It’s psychological research, essentially, which is inherently limited in its validity,” in which you commit the errors you attribute to science professors. Why, precisely, do you hold your beliefs about educational research and its “validity”; are you repeating what a neighbor has said?

I’ll focus only on one point, however. Not all educational research is “essentially” psychology research, and that you believe so, reveals your limited theoretical base. The disciplines of sociology, anthropology, communication and philosophy all have long traditions of educational research and scholarship, and that does not include more recent approaches such as cognitive science and literacy studies, just to name a couple. Perhaps educational research would be more compelling to you if you actually knew more about it. As an example of work you are probably familiar with, I will cite Sheila Tobias’s work. Unfortunately, her approach does not seem well grounded in theories of culture, but she focuses on the “cultures” of science in a way that is putatively not best thought of as “essentially” psychological. I would describe her work as being “socio-cultural” in approach, if, as I said, largely a-theoretical.

sciencegeekgirl September 8, 2008 at 10:39 am

Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Nic. It’s true that my experience with educational research is limited to the past year, in which I’ve perhaps been steeped in a particular educational research framework. In that past year, the type of research I have been exposed to has been strongly reminiscent of psychological and social-psychological research (in which I hold an undergraduate degree). I am not repeating what a neighbor has said, but rather basing my opinion on my observations that educational research — like psychological research — does not have access to the kind of controls that natural science does. It is simply very difficult to extract the effects of, say, educational practices on the brain of a student. There are many variables that cannot be accounted for. That limits the broad applicability of particular findings. I think that educational research *is* compelling, nonetheless, because when we observe the same results across a variety of populations of students and in a variety of contexts (such as the power of peer instruction), then we can extract out a certain amount of truth from the world despite the fog of multiple uncontrollable variables.

So, I am glad to have the wide variety of educational research approaches pointed out, and I would like to clarify that I do find educational research compelling, especially when the same result is seen in multiple contexts. But I stick to my original statements — the *validity* (in its precise definition) of educational research must be stringently examined, whether that work be from a psychological, sociological, cultural, anthropological, etc., perspective.

I know that many faculty in the natural sciences feel similarly, and coming up with a way to convince them that this work is valid and applies to their classroom is a challenge to our discipline. If you can come up with a way to convince *me*, who is nominally on the inside of the discipline, that seems a good place to start. One shouldn’t need to have an advanced degree in the discipline in order to see its value (which I *do*, but with friendly skepticism).

Dan Burns September 8, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Stanford University is hiring someone to oversee the adoption of PER methods in their undergraduate physics program. They will report directly to the head of the physics department. If you have a masters in physics you should apply!

Bruce Emerson September 12, 2008 at 5:02 pm


Great post — thanks for capturing a valuable discussion.. and look who looked in:) A couple of comments for the discussion.

Given that nationally roughly half (fact checkers please) of all physics students take their physics at a community college it seems relevant to note that the opportunities, barriers, and sustainability issues for this significant group of faculty form an almost mirror image to those articulated in your AAPT session. If it seems that it might be helpful I would be willing to attempt a draft based on my experiences and others in the Oregon AAPT at some future time (too big a rabbit hole for today). In this context I would also note that there is a huge population of high school physics teachers who are doing tremendous things as they develop and implement ideas and techniques arising from PER.

The “validity” discussion as it applies to PER is always fascinating. The implication that in the natural sciences experimental results have high intrinsic validity and PER results have less seems to me to be a bit of a red herring. What we do know is that what we might traditionally do (the folk theory) does not produce many of the learning outcomes that we profess to hold in high value. However uncertain the data may be there is little evidence that any of the myriad tools and strategies arising from PER ever do worse than the folk theory. Under these circumstances making no effort to explore teaching methods that might improve the learning of our students is a capitulation to the status quo. At the very least when I am trying to use a new tool or strategy with my students I am more engaged and alert to what is happening for my students. In this way we also model the processes of science that we hope for our students to learn and use.

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