Tim Stelzer, a professor of physics, compares the current climate in higher education to a white-water rafting trip. “You will certainly end up going down river, but the path you take can be the difference between an exhilarating adventure and a terrifying crash,” Stelzer said.
Unprecedented access to content on the Internet and increased economic constraints are pushing the current, according to Stelzer, but he believes that the UI can navigate successful outcomes with educational innovation. And his work as the 2009-2010 Distinguished Teacher-Scholar will contribute to these efforts on campus.
Accordingly, Stelzer and his colleagues in the Physics Education Research group – faculty members Gary Gladding and Mats Selen – have developed some innovative technologies that they say have transformed physics lectures, shifting the focus from content delivery to helping students synthesize content into knowledge.
A common problem in large lecture halls is that students are hesitant to answer questions because they are afraid of getting the answer wrong and embarrassing themselves in front of their peers.
Introducing peer instruction – intermittent breaks in the lecture for students to discuss answers to questions with each other and then report back – was a step toward changing that dynamic.
However, when student participation wasn’t forthcoming Stelzer, his research group colleagues and graduate student Benny Brown developed the i-clicker, a simple hand-held radio frequency transmitter/receiver that enables students to “vote” for the right answer. The clickers have a power button and buttons labeled A through E for selecting and transmitting answers to a receiver base that instructors plug into their computer’s USB port. When the student transmits an answer to a question, the light on the clicker flashes green if the base received the answer. If the light flashes red, the answer did not go through. In addition to sending the vote, each i-clicker has a unique ID number so that students may receive credit for their responses.
The results of the poll can be displayed for the class to see without identifying individual students.
The results are instantly available to the professor, who can tailor the lecture based on the students’ responses.
“It’s incredibly fun,” Stelzer said. “When I stop and let the students talk, the energy of the 300 students in the room comes back.”
Stelzer added that the development of the i-clicker “was a wonderful cooperation between education, research and industry.” The Office of the Provost supported the endeavor and many instructors across campus collaborated in field tests, he said.
More than 15,000 students have used i-clickers on the Urbana campus, and nearly 1 million are in use at 800 colleges and universities across North America.
As the 2009-2010 Distinguished Teacher-Scholar, part of Stelzer’s project involves promoting awareness of the i-clicker system as an effective learning tool, sharing best practices, developing Web-based resources and other i-clicker enhancements, and assisting faculty members who are new to the system.
A second innovation arose from the discovery that peer instruction is most effective if students come to lectures prepared. But getting them to read the textbook before the lecture was a challenge. To address this problem, Stelzer and his colleagues developed Web-based multimedia pre-lectures – short Flash animations with synchronized audio designed to provide students with the essential content necessary to participate in the lecture.
After the pre-lectures were added to the introductory physics course, the percentage of students who rated the lectures as valuable doubled from 40 percent to 80 percent, according to student surveys.
Research studies of the pre-lectures indicate that they are significantly more effective than a traditional textbook in helping students understand the material.
Stelzer was thrilled when he learned that he had been chosen as the year’s Distinguished Teacher-Scholar.
“The DT-S program is one way the university demonstrates its commitment to education,” Stelzer said. “For me personally, it offers a great opportunity to share what we have learned in physics with the broader campus. At a large university, we have the infrastructure, exceptional student body and talented faculty members to make things happen, but one of the difficulties is finding effective methods of sharing our work with each other across campus.”
In addition to offering workshops and other outreach programs this year, Stelzer will speak about the pre-lectures at the Faculty Retreat on Feb. 5.
The Distinguished Teacher-Scholar Program
… sponsored by the Teaching Advancement Board and the Office of the Provost, honors and supports outstanding instructors who take an active role in enhancing teaching and promoting learning on campus. The program supports innovative projects that nominees develop as part of the selection process. Award recipients serve as consultants and mentors to other faculty members and departments seeking to explore new instructional methods and revitalize their teaching programs. Although the appointment lasts one year, honorees carry the designation with them throughout their careers.