Carl Wieman Practices what he Preaches

I’ve been teaching by the seat of my pants for almost 9 years now. I try new things in the classroom and pay attention to whether they work. And I like to think I have decent instincts. What I haven’t done until this summer is invest serious time reading research on teaching and learning. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to spend 6 intensive days at Stanford studying with Carl Wieman (and about 40 like minded people) at his first ever summer Departmental Education Specialist Training Workshop.

It turns out I’ve been doing a lot of things right, and the workshop told me why they work. For example, I want students to try to work through problems before I teach them the best way to solve them. Research shows (e.g., Schwarz and Bransford, 1998) that when students have already made an effort, they understand what you tell them at a deeper level. They retain the ideas longer and are better able to transfer these skills to new problems.

It also turns out there is lots of room for improvement in my teaching. Among many other things, I learned about exam wrappers, invention activities, two stage exams, best practices for group management, and the power of contrasting cases and analogies. I’m now reconsidering several hard lines I’ve taken on teaching-related issues over the years. Here’s one: I never thought I’d be willing to give students points for using clickers during class, but Carl was persuasive in saying that students interpret points as guidance for what we think is important for them to do.

Did I mention that the workshop was intense? In all seriousness, it was a semester-long class condensed into six days. Before we even arrived, we had to read two books, eight articles, and five two-pagers that were grouped into 10 units. For each unit, we had to share on a class discussion board what surprised us most and which of the practices we read about were particularly common or uncommon . Carl made it very clear that if we hadn’t done the reading when we showed up, we’d be asked to leave. I have no doubt he would have followed through.

The workshop itself followed a fairly regular structure for each of the 10 units: First we would review the reading and discuss issues as Carl weighed in with his always thought-provoking expert opinion. Then we would individually build something using what we learned. The first unit was on how human memory works and how humans are easily distracted by extraneous detail. Our activity was to take a set of lecture slides that we had created and cut out the fat. Make the notation consistent. Slowly build up complex diagrams. Remove noisy backgrounds and flashy transitions. Leave in stories and interesting facts that contribute to understanding. We would post our activities to the class discussion board, and and then critique one or two of our colleagues’ projects. Finally, we would incorporate that feedback to create a revised version. Much of the individual work of creating, critiquing and revising happened at night and early in the morning. I can’t say I slept well that week as my mind was constantly turning over ideas.

My favorite part of the workshop was the extent to which Carl used the methods he was teaching us. The primary way experts become experts is deliberate practice. Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers knows that you need at least 10,000 hours of practice, but the key is that it has to be deliberate practice. You need to focus on the task at hand, be challenged, and receive constructive feedback. Rinse. Repeat. All the exercises we did during the workshop were prototypical deliberate practice. Peer teaching can also be an incredibly effective tool where the student doing the teaching learns as much (if not more) than the student (e.g., Cohen, Kulik, and Kulik ,1982). Our process of reviewing each others’ creative activities was classic peer teaching. One more example: Doing all these exercises primed us for Carl’s explaining how an expert would approach these problems.

Back in 2006, Carl started something called the Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Departments competed for grants that would be used to transform how that department taught their undergraduate courses. They hired PhD’s in their disciplines, trained them up on the latest pedagogy research, and had these “science education specialists” work with faculty to implement these course transformations. It worked. A little later, Carl took the idea and the lessons learned to the University of British Columbia and repeated the process. Over the last 10 years, these institutions have transformed 235 classes and more importantly made lasting changes to department teaching cultures.

Carl is now at Stanford pushing a third university through his machine, and he seems to have some momentum with other universities (like Cornell) implementing similar models of institutional change. He’s even published a book explaining the process in gory detail. The purpose of this workshop was in large part to train individuals at places doing this sort of thing or seriously considering it. I’m proud to say Cornell had five representatives in attendance and we all came home overflowing with course transformation ideas. We also returned even more motivated to carefully document course learning goals and create assessments of student success in meeting these learning goals. Progress on these fronts in economics will be reported here over the next few months.

At the end of the workshop Carl shared this analogy: Folk remedies from 100 years ago are to modern medicine as today’s lecture-based teaching is to the tomorrow’s evidence-based teaching. Let’s make this a reality.

UPDATE: Carl has given me the okay to share what I call the syllabus for the workshop here. It’s got the learning goals, readings, activities, and schedule. I think anyone reading this blog will find something interesting here!