Carl E. Wieman on teaching, university rankings and MOOCs

Rather than having a teacher stand up and tell things to the students, the teacher carefully designs problems that the student has to work with.
— Carl E. Wieman.

Carl E. Wieman, Nobel Prize in Physics, professor and researcher at Stanford University, talks with the Observatory about effective teaching methods, university rankings and the inefficiency of MOOCs.

Read the full transcript:

Observatory (O): What is the best teaching method for teaching science?

Wieman (W): The key idea that we see is that the brain learns what it practices, with good feedback on improving that practice. What that means in the classroom is that rather than having a teacher stand up and tell things to the students, the teacher carefully designs problems that the student has to work with. The learning is optimized if they work in small groups, three or four students working through those problems with the teacher monitoring what they are doing, what they are thinking, what they are struggling with, and then regularly coming in and giving feedback. To guide them they can ask questions, so everybody understands it. Then students go back to continue working through the problem. The essential idea is practicing the thinking you want the learner to gain with guiding feedback as they are going through that process.

O: In a world obsessed with rankings, how can universities improve teaching?

W: They just have to start measuring what teaching methods their faculty are using and reward those doing a better job. I don't see anything wrong with evaluating research and research productivity, the problem is just they completely ignore teaching as if everything is equivalent or there isn't good teaching and bad teaching. We know there is clearly more effective teaching. That has to be part of the ranking systems in the same way that universities generate new knowledge. It is valuable to have faculty members who have the deepest understanding of any subject so they can convey that they can teach students the same way.

I think it's just the imbalance; we know not enough about what's good teaching and what is bad teaching. It has to be put in place that you're really measuring and evaluating and rewarding and ranking on that basis. At this point, we don't really need more research. There are always opportunities for research, but we just need to have universities start paying attention to what teaching methods are being used.

I like to use the analogy that the way we're doing it now is equivalent to a hospital saying: “well some of our doctors are using bloodletting and some are using antibiotics, but we don't bother to measure, it's just up to their choice.” It is crazy when you know one works so much better than the other.

O: The University of British Columbia created the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative to help universities take a four-step, scientific approach to teaching. Tell us about this approach.

W: It was an experiment in trying to change an institution. At a large university, the department is really the key element; it decides what to teach and how to teach, for example, the physics department, the biology department and so on. That was an experiment on a scale that no one had tried before. Could you change entire departments how they teach, to change and to switch from their old traditional methods to these new more effective methods? A whole lot went into the design, testing and getting results from that. I ended up writing a whole book on it.

The key idea is that we developed an incentive system for the departments and the individual faculty to change their teaching. Then we developed support to help them understand not just what good teaching methods were but how you applied them to teaching the subject you would be needing to teach. In that way, we developed the expertise in teaching, in the discipline, among the faculty and made that a standard within a department.

O: What do you think the mission of a university should be?

W: I think the basic mission of universities is much the same as it has always been, which is providing higher education, the highest reasonable level of education that you can expect to provide to students. Our technology has changed; we need more students to have this higher level of thinking capabilities. One of the key things nowadays is that computers can do an awful lot; computers and robots are replacing people for an awful lot of things. What is really important now is what a person provides. Those thinking capabilities that go beyond what you can easily get from a computer.

Menial labor, doing menial routine calculations, those are not very valuable anymore because computers can do that. But what people uniquely can do now is make decisions. When you don't have all the information, you have to weigh a lot of different factors. That is really what thinking like a scientist or an engineer is, and that's what we teach. That is what the methods I talk about are. That is what they really are uniquely effective at teaching is that kind of novel thinking capabilities involving making better decisions. I would say that it has always been important for universities, but it's more important now. That dominates more routine things that might be learning, and that makes it all that much more important to adopt teaching methods that are really more effective at developing those decision-making capabilities for students.

O: What is your take on the future of MOOCs?

W: I look at data, and if you look at data on MOOCs, particularly look at data on learning from MOOCs, it is pretty dismal. I am far from convinced that they are really very meaningful. Maybe if you can't afford a textbook and you can look at something online, then the MOOC is better than nothing. But if your alternative is a real university experience, where you're actually thinking and getting feedback and interacting with people to justify arguments, then the data shows that it is so much better than MOOCs. I have trouble taking them seriously as a replacement for a good university.

I should say if you look at some of the data and look at why some people get excited, they always say: “Oh you know. One hundred and fifty thousand students took this MOOC.” Then you look at how many completed, they answer: “well, you know, it was half of one percent.” If you go to a university and say: “Well yeah, I did a great job. Half of one percent of my students were successful in completing the course. It would just be ridiculous. Somehow people don't pay much attention to that. They never look at the kind of real learning measures that people like me or who do research use.