Optimizing Your Learning of Science and Engineering (Dr. Carl Wieman, Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics, Stanford University)

UTokyo Global FD Symposium
Saturday April 22, 2017

Lecture Hall in the Mathematical Science Building
Komaba Campus, The University of Tokyo

Optimizing your learning of science and engineering
Over the past few decades a great deal has been learned about the thinking processes of experts, particularly scientists and engineers, and how learners can most efficiently develop those useful adaptive high-level thinking skills.  Most notable is the finding that such skills are developed, not innate, but quite specific mental processes are required for their development.  The research shows that much of what university students are told by their teachers as to how to best learn is not correct.   Dr. Wieman will discuss the nature of those expert thinking processes and how students can apply this research to guide and improve their own studying and learning.  After the discussion there will be time to ask lots of questions!















Report by Alexandra Terashima (Project Assistant Professor, Center for Global Communication Strategies, UTokyo)

The goal for this lecture, as stated by Dr. Wieman was to explain how students can learn to think like expert scientists or engineers as quickly as possible. He explained that his interest in this topic arose 25 years ago when he wondered why graduate students entering his lab couldn't do physics research, but observed that they can learn to do so after working in the lab for a year or two.

He decided to approach teaching and learning of science as a science, conducting controlled experiments with measurable results—to evaluate teaching practices and use data to determine what works and why. Additionally, he wanted to incorporate findings from cognitive psychology about how the brain learns and thinks. Results of his research suggested that when it comes to learning, some common practices that students are taught to use, are not very effective. For example, in an experiment comparing learning strategies used by students, Dr. Wieman and colleagues found that students who took notes during a lecture got lower scores on a test about the lecture content than students who simply listened to the lecture or those who studied at home from notes. Dr. Wieman suggested that taking notes adds to the cognitive load, distracting the student from fully processing the information and learning.

He also described a study where the research-based teaching approach was used to dramatically improve learning in a large introductory physics class of 250 people. The principle of this teaching style is that learning in science and engineering (and probably other subjects as well) requires a certain way of thinking about a problem and acquiring this way of thinking
takes practice and guiding feedback on how to improve incorrect thinking.

Studies attempting to characterize expert thinking identified three components: factual knowledge, a mental framework to organizethe knowledge in a way that it is easy to retrieve and apply, and the ability to monitor one’s own thinking and learning. Not surprisingly, acquiring this way of thinking requires many hours of practice, which actually rewires the brain. Dr. Wieman suggested that the reason graduate students do not know how to think like scientists is because, as undergraduates, they were only acquiring knowledge without learning how and when to apply it. The idea behind research-based teaching is that acquisition of factual knowledge must be integrated with an understanding of when and how to use it. It is a way of practicing elements of expertise with feedback from an instructor and reflection on one’s own learning; essentially “Learning how to apply knowledge.”

His case studies revealed that transforming the teaching style in physics courses, both introductory and for more advanced students, led to better attendance, greater learning and an overwhelming majority of positive comments from students responding to class evaluation questionnaires.

Some of the advice Dr. Wieman gave students to improve their learning was to study with focused attention, look for ways to check their own thinking (for example try to apply knowledge to other situations or discuss with the instructor), take time to understand incorrect thinking that led to a wrong answer and figure out how to avoid similar mistakes in the future, think about how different topics are linked and to sleep, because it consolidates learning.

During the lively Q and Athat followed the talk, students wanted to know what it takes to be a great scientist and how to get motivated about learning. About the former, Dr. Wieman said “Being a great scientist is not about being smart, it is about recognizing the obvious things that others have overlooked.” On the question of motivation, Dr. Wieman emphasized that becoming an expert requires motivation, but acknowledged that getting motivated can be a challenge. He suggested
thinking about why a particular topic is interesting. “Someone thought this was interesting, why?” Alternatively, to try
viewing the material as a way to solve a particular problem or answer a question, in other words find practical value in
the knowledge.


Report by Lynn Hirose (First Year Student, Natural Sciences1, UTokyo)

As one of few female science major students at The University of Tokyo, and as a part-time math teacher for junior high school students at a cram school, I found the lecture by Dr. Wieman extremely meaningful.

Firstly, Dr. Wieman asked us what we think the most effective way to study at school is. His answer was not at all what I thought. He said that the students who studied with lecture notes well-prepared by the professor got the highest score on a review test about the lecture, and the second highest were those who focused on listening to the lecture rather than taking down notes, while the lowest were those who were busy taking notes in class. This result made me feel that my teaching style, which was based on lecture-style with additional attention to individual students (group lesson), was completely rejected. But I still think there are some merits to this kind of lecture style, which we can’t experience by self-education. For example, this makes it possible for students to encourage as well as compete with each other by collectively reviewing their test scores. Moreover, teachers can help students correct their mistakes and advise them about how to study better after class, which is very helpful to students. I’m sure that it is very important for students to organize and write down important details into their own notes by themselves while listening to lectures, and review their notes later. I want to remember merits and will continue to do my best to make my class better, where my students can understand the content of the lecture well while taking notes effectively.

Dr. Wieman also said that a lecture by a young postdoctoral fellow where students actively participated in the class in small groups was found to be much more effective than by a senior experienced teacher to whom students listened passively. I think it’s because the active style allows students to consider the matter more deeply in class and understand subjects better. The active discussion class style is still rather rare in Japan, compared with other countries. One of the biggest reasons why Japanese people are not good at conveying their ideas to others is, I think, that there are few opportunities to discuss in class at junior or high school. As the government sets the minimum standard about what should be taught at school, it may be difficult for teachers to allocate class time for discussion amongst students. However, we should have students more actively participate in class rather than just giving them lecture.

Dr. Wieman emphasized the importance of delving deeply into “why.” For example, when you make a mistake, you need not only know the correct answer but also you need to examine in what point and why you are wrong. Over the years, I have kept “mistake notebook,” in which I write down my mistakes or wrong answers that I have made in tests and the correct answers as well as the reason I was in error added to each of them. Dr. Wieman made me realize the importance of keeping this practice.

As is often said, to measure one’s comprehension, the best way is to try to explain it to young children, which Dr. Wieman mentioned it, too. I really agree with him because we can’t teach well without a thorough understanding about the subject.

At the end of the lecture, Dr. Wieman said that modern technology such as digital devices has enabled us to distribute information more efficiently. I decided that I would keep searching for a way of better education and studying methods and attitude that fit the modern age.