Physics is no “spectator sport”
Associate professor of physics, Dr. James Fraser, is known for his innovative research on ultra-fast light-matter interactions and non-linear optics. He’s working to make precision cutting with lasers more effective, and when not working in his lab, Fraser is being a bit of a maverick in the classroom. Recently, Andrew Stokes spoke to Fraser about his research and teaching styles, and learned that physics is no “spectator sport.”
By having his students teach one another and by acting as a mentor rather than instructor, Fraser is creating a generation of apprentice scientists.
You have an unconventional teaching style that eschews standing at the front of class lecturing. Why is that?
I have a really strong belief that science, and physics in particular, is something you learn by doing, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask my students, whether upper- or first-year, to sit quietly and listen to me. I collaborate often in my own research and I think the success I’ve had with my graduate students comes from welcoming input from everyone involved and creating a variety of perspectives. Whenever I’ve surveyed my students about a time they’ve really learned a concept well, and how they did so, only two or three will say it was from the lecture portion of the class. The rest comment that they had the best grasp of the subject when they saw a mentor demonstrate something and then had the chance to practice it and get feedback. My teaching staff and I are mentors who set the bar in terms of what should be learned and then help our students to get there. We give them lots of feedback whenever we can.
What does that look like in practice?
It can look quite chaotic. Students are given readings to complete before class and a series of problems to work out online. The classes are totally dependent on their questions that result from those problems – I put their questions up on the screen and, after a bit of prompting from me, they set about solving them together in small groups. The room explodes into noise as they’re debating with one another about the best way to do it. Working like that gives students a sense of control about what they’re doing. It’s not just me pushing information at them. This style of teaching becomes really addictive because it’s so fun – you know exactly what the students are having trouble with and you get to see them resolve those problems.
And so what are you doing while they’re making all that noise?
I walk around the classroom while they’re discussing and help the groups that have gotten stuck, asking them questions, but mostly it’s the students teaching one another. When you’ve got a group of four who have all gotten the wrong answer, but different wrong answers, there’s a tremendous amount of learning going on. Queen’s has superb students and when they work together they can have a really enriching discussion. After they’ve had a chance to work it out I poll the class using iClickers (handheld polling devices) or flash cards and if most of them have the right answer we’ll move on, but if they’re still having trouble, we’ll take on a simpler problem so they can better understand the concept. To succeed in physics requires a strong grasp of some fundamental ideas, so I make sure the students know the basics.
This sort of teaching sounds like it requires an atmosphere of trust and comfort. How do you develop that?
Trust is absolutely necessary, especially when students don’t know the answer to a question. They can be very reluctant to admit it for fear of not looking smart enough. I try to make my students comfortable right from day one and I do that by first making them uncomfortable. They get into the class and are put into small groups of about five people. The groups are selected according to some common factor, usually according to residence hall, but the members don’t really know each other. I make sure they get to know each other’s names and ask them constantly over the first week about their group mates’ names. I don’t think you can trust someone until you know who they are.
Greater student interaction makes them more interested, but how do you know this type of teaching is more effective?
I do various standardized tests, not for marks, but to help ascertain where my students’ understanding is. It helps both me and them to know where their shortcomings are. With passive, lecture-based learning, students have been shown to retain about 20 per cent of the information, but with a more active learning style that number jumps to over 40 per cent.
The students are okay with the switch from what they’re used to?
Absolutely. I acquaint them with the data on different teaching styles and show them it’s proven to work. I think the active learning style also helps them with identity formation, which can be so important to success in learning physics. Because they’re helping one another with the problems and explaining their thinking, they can more readily imagine themselves as apprentice scientists. They’re on the path to becoming proficient scientists and working in groups gives them a chance to act like it. They learn to speak, share, evaluate, judge and critique one another while remaining supportive. After we’ve had some standardized tests I’ll show them their results as compared to other universities. When they see they’re keeping pace with students in active learning courses at Harvard, they trust the method is working. Seeing their success creates a positive spiral where their confidence leads to better understanding and thus further improves confidence.
Speaking of Harvard, you spent time there on a sabbatical recently. How was that?
My time at Harvard was illuminating. I was working in the lab of Dr. Eric Mazur, a scientist who is doing a lot of interesting work both with lasers and with education. Because he has such an eminent lab, there were many distinguished scholars frequently coming through and we got to share ideas about what worked and what didn’t. I found myself spending more and more time in classrooms, observing teaching rather than working in the lab.
What did you see in the classrooms?
I saw a lot of great ideas and methods fall apart in practice. But, I also saw some really innovative techniques find great success. For example, having students take on a teaching role is something that seems to work well.
Any insights from the success stories?
Teaching students course content is sometimes not as important as teaching them transferable skills. Content can have a limited application, but learning to analyze, critique and communicate are essential everywhere.
(e)Affect Issue 6, Fall 2014
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Dr. Fraser's research
Dr. James Fraser