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I Slept in Physics Class... But I Wasn't Missing Anything

I'd like to say that it was always unintentional. That I painstakingly struggled to keep my eyelids from closing, my head from drooping, and my consciousness from waning. But no, more often than not, I embraced it.

The lecture hall had stadium seating. Steep steps led down to the bottom floor, from where the professor delivered his physical science sermons. Each level of the hall featured long, connected tables with chairs positioned at regular intervals. There were no individual desks.

The lecture hall's layout was highly conducive to sleeping for two important reasons. One, the professor rarely craned his head upwards to glance higher than the third or fourth row, so students seated in the upper levels could snooze without suffering his reproachful gaze. And two, the surfaces offered plenty of room to sprawl out comfortably. Many times I laid my arms out flat before me and used my forearms as pillows. I'm a skinny guy, so they weren't incredibly cushioning, but with the help of lulling lectures on thermodynamics, circuits, magnetism, and momentum, they more than sufficed.

About twenty minutes into a lecture, I was usually snoozing soundly or locked in the nonsensical stupor of sleep stage one. I could tell the exact moment when I began to drift off by appraising the legibility of my handwritten notes. Occasionally, the notes themselves would be directly subject to my dreariness, and I'd pop out of a daze to look down and read inane stories that had little to do with physics and more to do with a surprising coalescence of dragons and soccer.

shutterstock_85522279.jpgWith about ten minutes left in class, however, I would snap back to alertness. This abrupt awakening often coincided with the beginning of a demonstration. Physics may not always be engaging in an auditory sense, but it sure is entertaining to watch.

Despite my lackadaisical attitude to attentiveness in physics lectures, I garnered excellent grades in both course semesters at UW-Madison, which I attribute mostly to studiousness and partly to luck. But I also think it has to do with something else. Traditional college physics lectures, by and large, have little effect on grades or even learning in general.

But don't take my word for it. (After all, I slept through at least 40% of my physics lectures. So I'm certainly not a reputable source.) Take the word of Professor Graham Giggs, former Director of the Oxford Learning Institute, who says that lecturing does not achieve educational objectives, nor is it an efficient use of the lecturer's or the student's time and energy.

Giggs is not alone in this belief. Dr. David Hestenes, a noted theoretical physicist who for 30 years taught at Arizona State University, firmly believes that the physics lecture is ineffectual. It doesn't reinforce concepts or understanding, only memorization, he says.

"The classes only seem to be really working for about 10 percent of the

students," Hestenes told NPR. "And I maintain, I think all

the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that

would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on

their own."

"Students have to be active in developing their knowledge," he furthered. "They can't passively assimilate it."

During a typical physics lecture, students have five actionable options. They can text, peruse Facebook, sleep, listen, or take notes. The problem here is that the last two choices -- the only ones that might actually aid in learning -- are mutually exclusive. You can listen, and try to wrap your head around what the professor is hastily lecturing about, or you can furiously take notes and throw comprehension out the door. More often than not, this conundrum simply boils down to having your mind boggled now -- during class -- or later -- when you try to decipher your hurried academic scribbling. There's got to be a better way.

For 20 years, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur has been using a lecture method he calls "peer instruction," also known as "deliberate practice." The method divvies students in large lectures into smaller groups within the classroom. Students are presented with a multiple-choice question and asked to answer it as a group using an electronic device. Mazur monitors the percentage of correct answers, which is low initially. He then has the groups discuss the problem and answer it again. The percentage of correct answers rises. Mazur then informs the entire class of the correct answer and leads a brief discussion on the reasoning behind it.

"What we found over now close to 20 years of using this approach is that

the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple," Mazur told NPR.

A study appearing in Science last year corroborated Mazur's amazing results. Physics Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman put the method to the test at the University of British Columbia. After 15 weeks of using deliberate practice, students performed over twice as well on a 12-question multiple choice test as their peers learning the same material in a traditional lecture control group.

The results speak for themselves. Physics departments have nothing to lose by trying out this new, innovative method of teaching. Students, however, may be deprived of nap time.

(Image: Sleeping Student via Shutterstock)