Teaching & Learning | Research

Physics Instructors Try New Teaching Methods, but Few Stick with Them

Change is hard, and act two appears to be the toughest phase of all to get through for physics instructors who want to try to teach their science courses in new ways. A recent study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the University of Colorado - Boulder found that although physics teachers are willing to try innovative teaching techniques in introductory physics courses, many revert to traditional teaching approaches in short order.

The study, "Use of research-based instructional strategies in introductory physics: Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process?"--recently published by the American Physical Society--also suggests crucial factors that can predict how well an innovation will "stick" for a given instructor.

During 2008 the researchers sampled 722 physics faculty members in higher education across the United States. A Web-based survey asked 61 questions to help identify personal characteristics of the respondent (such as gender) and the familiarity and use of instructional strategies, such as collaborative problem solving, peer instruction, interactive lecture demonstrations, and 21 teaching other approaches or "research-based instructional techniques."

They used this information to figure out the point at which faculty discard the use of a new technique along the adoption lifecycle. The largest losses occurred, according to the report, at the "continuation" stage, where the instructor has to make a choice about whether to stick with the new technique or discontinue it.

The factors that encourage teachers to try out new teaching methods in the first place mostly relate to their exposure to other instructors. That includes reading teaching-related journals, attending talks and workshops related to teaching, and attending physics and astronomy new faculty workshops. Also, instructors tend to be more willing to experiment if they're female, care about meeting instructional goals, and have a permanent, full-time position. And, although it seems obvious, having an interest in using more new teaching approaches correlates with using more new approaches.

What doesn't seem to matter is the age of the instructor, the type of institution, the size of the class being taught, or the percentage of the position actually related to teaching versus other activities.

The paper's authors noted that it's easier to make faculty aware of new approaches to teaching than it is to persuade instructors to stick with them once they've been tried. If a school wants instructors to adopt new instructional approaches, the paper suggested, it'll need to provide greater support to faculty during implementation. Plus, it'll want to identify where in the adoption process "the biggest losses occur" for that particular environment.

"Current change strategies seem to do a reasonably good job of helping faculty develop knowledge and motivation to try these new instructional strategies," the researchers reported. "But additional work is needed to understand and address the third of faculty who discontinue use after trying." In fact, the paper declares, it may be more fruitful to focus on getting those who discontinue use of an innovation to pick it up again than to encourage holdouts to try the innovation in the first place.

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