Why TEAL works

Ten years ago, MIT had a freshman physics problem. TEAL fixed it.

In the years leading up to 2000, the MIT Physics Department realized it had a problem. Despite great lecturers such as Walter Lewin, attendance at physics lectures fell 40 percent by the end of the term. In addition, an average of 10 percent of students failed 8.01 (Mechanics) and 14 percent of students failed 8.02 (Electricity and Magnetism). So MIT did what it does best: It solved the problem.

Professor John Belcher, frustrated with the failure of the lecture/recitation format, decided to try something new. He teamed up with Senior Lecturer Peter Dourmashkin and Professor David Litster to implement a major change in the way freshman physics was taught. Borrowing from education research done by Carl Wieman and changes already implemented in other schools, like North Carolina State’s “Scale-Up” program, TEAL was born. From their research, the trio knew that one of the problems with the traditional format of teaching physics was the fact that it was a passive style of teaching.

“TEAL, which stands for technology-enabled active learning, is more about learning the information instead of just distributing it,” Dourmashkin explained.

But better teaching wasn’t all the team was aiming for. They wanted to transform novice physics students into experts. Dourmashkin, along with Wieman, observed that in higher level physics classes, students had difficulties with basic physics learned in 8.01 and 8.02. While it isn’t expected that they remember everything they learned after not looking at it for two years, they were also quite slow to relearn the material. This was because most students were still stuck in the “novice” mindset; when given a problem, they would try to find a formula that worked and solve for the unknown. However, as many students now know (thanks to TEAL), this works in physics for only the simplest problems. One of the goals of TEAL, therefore, was to literally change the way students were thinking about the problems. Rather than running to the formulas, students should be able to apply multiple abstract concepts to new situations, to adapt general methods of problem-solving to problems they’ve never seen before.

This was one of the failures of lecture-based freshman physics. For most students, they’d never had to utilize “expert” techniques during high school. The formulas were all they needed. As a result, lectures that professors delivered which seemed clear and carefully thought out were perceived in an entirely different light by their students, who had yet to develop the problem-solving skills and advanced reasoning that the lecturer took for granted. Research supports this; Wieman points out that it has been shown that even when looking at a simulation on a computer screen, students “literally see different things happening… than do the experts. As a result, the student can interpret what is shown very differently from what was intended, and learn incorrect ideas.”

So how does one change teaching to transform novice thinkers into experts? This was the ultimate goal of TEAL — to create problem-solving, self-learners. As any student who has gone through TEAL knows, the class consists of a few elements that make it fundamentally different than a lecture. First, it is the goal of TEAL instructors to solve problems that combine various methods and multiple concepts as opposed to simply memorizing concepts. Students are also able to ask questions during the solution, which, in practice, rarely happens during lectures. Furthermore, they are periodically given problems that they must work together as a table and solve. Fridays are typically devoted entirely to such group problem solving.

The second major difference is the clicker questions, where a multiple-choice question testing the understanding of a concept is displayed on the projector. The students then use hand-held remotes to input what they believe to be the correct answer. The instructor can then choose to give students, sitting at tables in groups of 9, an opportunity to discuss the problem and change their answers. After doing so, the number of correct answers typically shoots up. The final major element of TEAL is the addition of experiments; in the lecture/recitation format, there were none. This allows students to get hands-on experience testing the concepts they’ve learned in class.

In other words, the major difference between TEAL and lectures is the fact that lectures are passive. Students sit and take notes, if they show up to class at all. In TEAL, attendance is taken through the participation in the clicker questions and it is active learning. Students get up and solve problems, they answer questions, and are actively involved in their learning. There is plenty of research substantiating the fact that learning by doing (active learning) has a far higher retention rate than a lecture (passive learning).

If all this is true, why do I vividly recall during my orientation an upperclassman lamenting the fact that I would be forced to take TEAL? Why were some students choosing to do 8.012 just so they didn’t have to do TEAL? Why was the general perception of TEAL among students that I was greeted with upon my arrival at MIT so negative? Prof. Redwine, who has taught and administered TEAL, argues that it is a residual effect from TEAL’s implementation, and I believe that he is correct.

All four of members of the physics department I interviewed echoed one identical sentiment: TEAL is difficult to teach. In the beginning years, faculty members were reluctant to abandon their lectures for this experiment in education. The first few years of TEAL’s implementation were indeed experimental, testing what worked and what didn’t. Predictably, it was some of the things that didn’t work, which are now gone, that students took away from the class. Many students probably do not realize the extent to which TEAL is responsive to their input. Last year, for example, problem sets in 8.01 were optional, but after students expressed an extreme dissatisfaction with this, it was done away with.

TEAL’s formative years were just that: formative. But now the program has reached an adult stage. Instead of a few reluctant instructors, there are now teachers clamoring to teach a TEAL section. They find it more flexible, more enjoyable, and more effective than lectures. The failure rate has stayed at levels lower than that of the lectures, proving that TEAL is more effective. While TEAL has been largely effective, the members of the physics department do anticipate it to be continuously refined and polished, tweaking it here and there to ensure an optimal learning experience. And the final fact that many are not aware of speaks the most to TEAL’s popularity; according to the end-of-term surveys that students fill out, TEAL is now just as popular as the lectures were. Just as popular, but more effective. In other words, TEAL is a complete success.

TEAL is an example of an education reform, based on scientific research, which worked. It is an example of what more schools at all levels across the country need to begin doing. I do not claim that every reform attempted will succeed, but if a reform is implemented by a team of dedicated individuals, and it is worked on patiently to correct its flaws, the potential for success is certainly there. It may not be easy, but it’s certainly worth it. In the words of Professor Belcher, who served as Principal Investigator on the Plasma Science Experiment on the Voyager Neptune/Interstellar Mission put it, “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the hardest, working on Voyager was a five. Implementing TEAL and reforming education was a 10.”