College Professors Teach Math In Traditional Ways

  From Gay Clyburn, Carnegie Foundation

David Bressoud writes for the Mathematical Association of America: One of the most personally disturbing pieces of information gleaned from the MAA survey of over 700 calculus instructors was that almost two-thirds agreed with the statement, “Calculus students learn best from lectures, provided they are clear and well-prepared.” Another 20% somewhat disagreed. Only 15% disagreed or strongly disagreed. This belief of most calculus instructors that students learn best from lectures is in direct contradiction to the observation made by Halmos:“A good lecture is usually systematic, complete, precise—and dull; it is a bad teaching instrument.” This common belief is also contradicted by the evidence that we have, the most recent and dramatic of which comes from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The CWSEI study compared lecture format with interactive, clicker-based peer instruction in two large (267 and 271 students, respectively) sections of introductory physics for engineering majors. The results were published in Science. What is most impressive is how well controlled the study was—ensuring that the two classes really were comparable—and how strong the outcome was: The clicker-based peer instruction class performed 2.5 standard deviations above the control group.

3 comments on “College Professors Teach Math In Traditional Ways”

  1. I think lecture is effective. It has been used for decades and I’ve seen its result. Maybe for others it not as very much helping but I think for the majority it a good instrument in teaching. But in my opinion pure lecture is a bit boring.

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  2. Intuitively, I think the conclusion of the study sounds reasonable. However, I find the wording of the question problematic:

    “Calculus students learn best from lectures, provided they are clear and well-prepared.”

    If this was read aloud the the professors taking part in the survey, it’s highly possible many were agreeing that “students learn best form lectures if the lecture is clear and well prepared”, a somewhat vacuous statement.

  3. Maybe the majority of the professors from that survey are right. There are some differences of opinion on that CWSEI study.

    ‘Yet experts who reviewed the new report cautioned that it was not convincing enough to change teaching. The study has a variety of limitations, they said, some because of the difficulty of doing research in the dude-I-slept-through-class world of the freshman year of college, and others because of the study’s design. “The whole issue of how to draw on basic science and apply it in classrooms is a whole lot more complicated than they’re letting on,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.
    Dr. Willingham said that, among other concerns, the study was not controlled enough to tell which of the changes in teaching might have accounted for the difference in students’ scores.’

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