UniServe Science News Volume 10 July 1998


Practical Ways to Improve Student Learning in Lectures

Marjan Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology

Marjan was awarded one of two CAUT National Teaching Fellowships in 1996 and spent several months in Germany and the USA investigating innovative Physics teaching and learning and research into Physics Education at University level.

"If students are to learn desired outcomes in a reasonably effective manner, then the teacher's fundamental task is to get students to engage in learning activities...It is helpful to remember that what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does" (Shuell, 1986).


Within the Physics Education Group at Curtin, we are trialling a number of innovative teaching strategies such as the establishment of the "Physics Studio" (Loss and Thornton, 1997, adapted from Wilson and Redish, 1992; and Wilson, 1994) which utilises student-centred learning workshops to replace the conventional lecture - tutorial - laboratory classes. Dr Robert Loss is developing and evaluating World Wide Web teaching and learning materials within existing units and a new unit on Web literacy (Web Science, Kovler, Loss and Zadnik, 1997). Through the support of a large ARC grant we are also assessing the effectiveness of computer-based multimedia Physics instruction (Yeo, Loss, Zadnik, Harrison, and Treagust, 1998). However, much of the Department's teaching is still carried out in a traditional format in the form of lectures*.

In spite of research in science education providing support for constructivism, student-centred learning, and the benefits of flexible and interactive delivery mechanisms, universities continue to use and build large lecture theatres. Lectures may be effective for information delivery, but are often no better than other available methods and probably worse than many texts and/or Web based materials. Traditional lectures tend to emphasise voluminous content, surface learning, low levels of student engagement and effective learning (Bligh, 1971; Gibbs and Habeshaw, 1989) and often decreasing student attendance. So, why do universities persist with lectures? Two commonly held views are, economics (fewer dollars per student hour) and tradition (That was how we were taught, and if it was good enough for us, it is good enough for today's students!). The former is difficult to refute in times of ever shrinking budgets which suggests that much of our teaching (especially service teaching to large groups of non-major students) will continue to be in the form of lectures. How then can we improve the large lecture learning experience?

Peer or collaborative learning in lectures

One very successful and easily adoptable technique, which I came across as part of my CAUT National Teaching Fellowship Award travels, was at Harvard, where I met Eric Mazur, from the Physics Department, and sat in on one of his first year electricity and magnetism classes. Mazur has developed a technique which he calls "peer learning" or "collaborative learning" for use in large lectures. The technique has now been widely adopted in the USA largely as a result of its demonstrated effectiveness, ease of use and transferability to other disciplines. Several times during an otherwise standard lecture, the lecturer poses a carefully selected, relevant, conceptual question with a set of possible answers. The questions do not involve formulae or calculations and students are given about a minute to select one of the possible answers which they write down. They then vote on the answers (by a show of hands, or at Harvard, by entering their choice into a network of hand held calculators) so that they and in particular, the lecturer, have immediate feedback on possible misconceptions students have. Given that most people learn best when having to teach others, the students are then asked to turn to one or two neighbours and convince them of their selected answer. After another minute or two, the lecturer asks students to again vote for the alternatives. The new voting pattern almost always leads to an increase in the number of students choosing the correct answer as well as providing more feedback to the lecturer who can then decide whether to spend more time on that concept or move on to new work. Of course, the lecturer gives the correct answer and may further reinforce the concept by having a demonstration available. For example, in the Mazur lecture I attended, the conceptual question dealt with a pendulum with a small sheet of copper at its end, swinging through the poles of a strong electro-magnet. Students were asked to predict its behaviour, via the above method. After voting was completed, Mazur demonstrated the effect on the swing of the pendulum when the magnetic field was switched on. There was a loud gasp of surprise from the student body on seeing the demonstration. Clearly the message had sunk in. Students had their misconceptions challenged both through discussion and through the demonstration.

In my own experience in using this technique, I have found students very attentive to such challenging questions and eager to participate in the discussions. Post-course surveys indicate over 80% of the students prefer this style of lecture to the traditional "stand and deliver" approach. As part of the dissemination phase of my Fellowship, I have discussed and demonstrated peer learning at seminars and workshops to over 800 lecturers and teachers. Many participants have tried this in their own classes and reported positive results. I have used examples of conceptual questions (similar to those found in Paul Hewitt's book "Next Time Questions: Conceptual Physics, eighth edition") with groups as large as 200 people and have had over 50% of the group (non-physics teachers) initially choosing the incorrect answer. However after a short discussion with their neighbours, the percentage still with incorrect answers dropped to less than 20%.

An interesting variation is to ask students not only to vote on an answer but also to express, on say a 1 to 3 scale, their confidence in their answers both before and after discussion with their peers. Again my experience, and that of others, indicates that the two minute discussion with peers has improved not only the proportion of students with the correct answer but also their confidence in their answer.

There is of course a cost for this level of interaction in that it reduces the amount of time instructors have to "deliver" content. Anyone concerned about this may need to ask themselves, is it more important for students to understand the difficult concepts in this lecture or to deliver that additional 10% of material. To use this approach, instructors must either reduce the amount of content they deliver in lectures or assign the content for coverage by other means e.g. student reading.

Overall, the procedure is a powerful method of engaging students' attention and challenging their misconceptions. An important aspect of this technique is that the questions and alternative answers need to be carefully designed such that a reasonable proportion of the class gets the correct answer. This then leads to useful discussion and the result is an inevitable improvement in student learning, since it engages students at a deeper level than normally experienced in traditional lectures. Mazur has extensively documented students responses and has presented evidence of the efficacy of this method in his book "Peer Instruction". In the book he also provides over 200 pages of class-tested, conceptual questions (also available electronically on the accompanying disk). Further resources are available at the following Web sites:
For Physics questions:
For Chemistry, questions probing understanding, are available at:

The Minute Paper

Another very useful and readily adaptable means for enhancing active student involvement in lectures (or any classes) and providing instructors with valuable feedback on their teaching is "The Minute Paper" (Angelo and Cross, 1993). To encourage active listening and help students focus, the instructor announces at the beginning of the class that there will be a short exercise at the end of the session which will require students to write down anonymous (hence non-threatening) responses to the following questions:

  1. What was the most useful or meaningful thing you learned during this session?
  2. What question(s) remain uppermost in your mind from the session?
  3. What was the "muddiest" point in this session? (i.e. what was least clear to you?)

To assist the students complete the exercise, the instructor, in an earlier class, may need to provide examples of answers to the three questions, and in particular, a clear example of a muddy point - "clear" in the sense that the muddiest point can be addressed within the context of the course. To be fair to the students, and to demonstrate that this is not yet another survey/questionnaire, the instructor should summarise the results and provide feedback to the class at the next session. In my experience, asking these questions has led to useful and sometimes surprising student responses and helped me realise that one should not make assumptions about the students' levels of understanding. The responses are useful in monitoring students in terms of their level of understanding of the course (without requiring a full scale test), and allow the instructor to modify the content and emphasis in following classes.

In summary, many instructors, including myself, have found the above methods very valuable in obtaining rapid feedback on student learning and understanding. This has enabled me to modify materials appropriately, with the continual aim of increasing active student learning. Most importantly, the students benefit by being actively involved in their own learning processes.

*Note: In using the terms "traditional/ standard/conventional lecture", I am assuming the same meaning as Gibbs, Habeshaw and Habeshaw (1984) which is: "50-55 minutes of largely uninterrupted discourse from a lecturer with no discussion between students and no student activity other than listening and note-taking".


I am indebted to the former Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) for the Award of the National Teaching Fellowship to allow me to investigate best practice in Physics instruction in Germany and the USA, and to my Curtin colleagues, Dr Robert Loss and Ms Shelley Yeo (Department of Applied Physics), Professor David Treagust (Science and Mathematics Education Centre) and Associate Professor Alexandra Radloff (Centre for Educational Advancement) for their constructive criticism and for sharing their knowledge and wisdom.


Angelo, T A and Cross, K P (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, second edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bligh, D A (1972). What is the use of lectures? Harmondsworth, Mdx.: Penguin Books.
Gibbs, G, Habeshaw, S and Habeshaw, T (1984). 53 interesting things to do in your lectures. Bristol, UK: Technical and Educational Services.
Gibbs, G and Habeshaw, T (1989). Preparing to teach: An introduction to effective teaching in higher education. Bristol, UK: Technical and Educational Services.
Hewitt, P G (1998). Next Time Questions: Conceptual Physics, eighth edition, Addison-Wesley.
Loss, R D and Thornton, D R (1997). Studio Format Undergraduate Physics Instruction. Proceedings of the 3rd Australian Conference on the Use of Computers in University Physics Education (OzCUPE3), UniServe Science, 77-80.
Kovler, M, Loss, R D and Zadnik, M G (1997). Development of Interactive Web Based Physics Instruction. Proceedings of the 3rd Australian Conference on the Use of Computers in University Physics Education (OzCUPE3), UniServe Science, 22-25.
Mazur, E (1995). Peer Instruction: a User's Guide, Series in Educational Innovation, Upper Saddlel River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Shuell, T J (1986). Cognitive conceptions of learning. Review of Educational Research, 56, 411-436.
Wilson, J M and Redish, E F (1992). The Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment: Part 1. Background and system operation. Computers in Physics, 6 (2), 202-209.
Wilson, J M (1994). The CUPLE Physics Studio. The Physics Teacher, 32, 518-523.
Yeo, S, Loss, R, Zadnik, M G, Harrison, A and Treagust, D (1998). Interactive multimedia: What do students really learn? Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum, 4 and 5 February 1998, Compiled by Barbara Black and Natalie Stanley, 341-347.


Curtin University of Technology, Applied Physics
Curtin University Physics Education Research Group
Curtin University Physics Studio

Marjan Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics
Curtin University of Technology

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UniServe Science News Volume 10 July 1998

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