By Annie Murphy Paul
Carl Wieman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and a professor who prided himself on his brilliant lectures. There was just one problem with Wieman’s teaching style: his students weren’t learning much. As it began to dawn on Wieman that his students were absorbing little by passively listening, he decided to try an experiment. He presented a fact in his lecture, then quizzed the students 15 minutes later on the fact. The proportion who remembered the information: just 10 percent.
Wieman himself comments: “To see whether we simply had mentally deficient students, I once repeated this experiment when I was giving a departmental colloquium at one of the leading physics departments in the United States. The audience was made up of physics faculty members and graduate students, but the result was about the same: around 10 percent.”
Wieman resolved to shake up the way his students learned—and what he did next carries an important lesson for all of us who want to promote effective learning at home, in the classroom and in the workplace. He had his students argue with one another. Turning to a nearby classmate, each student took a turn explaining and debating a concept from physics.
Wieman, who now focuses his professional energies on improving science education, says that such debates, along with other changes, lead to “substantially greater learning gains than are achieved with traditional lectures, with typical increases of 50 to 100%.” Yet most classes—and most meetings—still feature someone droning on at the front of the room. Shake up that ineffective format, the way Wieman did: ask your students or your employees to engage in explaining, persuading and debating the material at hand.