UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

Jack M. Wilson, Professor of Physics and Dean of Undergraduate and Continuing Education, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180 USA

Studio Teaching: When the Future Becomes the Present

Jack M. Wilson


Over the last two years, we at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, NY, introduced a new model for the large enrolment undergraduate courses that has become known as the Studio Model.1, 2 . It started in the Math and Physics Departments and has since been adapted to Chemistry, Biology, Engineering and Computer Science. Plans for future courses span the undergraduate and graduate curriculum and we have begun to ask how we might involve distant students in the Studio course.

The challenge of the present

Education is coming in for intense pressure to accommodate several current trends. A larger and larger percentage of students are carrying on their studies while working; and the pace of technological change is so great that many university graduates will need to be involved in "continuous education". At the same time resources are not going to be made available to universities to build new buildings and new campuses to accommodate the increase in demand for higher education; and increasingly cost will join quality as primary measures of success in higher education.

More and more, planners and funding agencies are looking to computing and networking technologies to change the way higher education is carried out.

The fear of the future

Many academics are not happy with this prospect. A recent Prism article asks: "If a student can zoom the countries best professors into his or her living room, of what use are the rest of the countries professors?"3

I am reminded of a visit that I made to Tianjin. As we waited out a twelve hour delay in our flight to Hong Kong, we watched the construction of a new runway. Hundreds of workers used shovels and wheelbarrows to excavate the area. I asked the government official with me why they didn't use a bulldozer to make quick work of the job. He looked at me in amazement, pointed at the workers, and asked, "then what would they do?"

Surely the worry that faculty are about to be replaced by teaching machines is groundless. Teaching, after all, is more than merely presenting material to students. Nevertheless, changes are indeed coming, and they will be profound. As Zemsky and Massy note: "information technology will change teaching and learning profoundly, no matter what the response of traditional higher education institutions."4

Rationale for Change

The introductory science courses at many of our large universities around the world can be an intimidating experience for the new student. The format of large lecture, smaller recitation, and separate laboratory continues to be the dominant method of instruction at larger universities. In spite of the uneven quality found in recitations -- often taught by mixtures of teaching assistants and faculty with that mix varying widely from university to university -- it is likely that most learning takes place in the recitation and problem sessions. The laboratories are a more dismal case. Taught by teaching assistants with minimal or almost no training, the laboratories are universally panned by the students. Because of this perception of low quality and the resources required to run laboratories, some universities have abandoned them altogether.

Many efforts to improve undergraduate courses work from an assumption that there are "good lecturers" and "bad lecturers," and that students can learn more from the "good lecturers." The strategy then is to improve the "bad" or replace with the "good." Providing good lectures is obviously superior to providing poor lectures, but there is little evidence that this leads directly to increased learning. Still many applications of technology are efforts to improve or replace the lecturer with electronic forms of lecture. When we hear educational institutions telling of their "classroom of the future," it nearly always describes an instructor lecturing from a multimedia podium that resembles the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Why don't they describe rooms in which it is the students who are working very hard and doing the interesting things, rather than watching teachers do them?

Designing an educationally and cost effective alternative

From 1988 to 1993, Rensselaer introduced a variety of courses incorporating systematic use of technology in a cooperative learning environment. We sought to reduce the emphasis on the lecture, to improve the relationship between the course and the laboratory, to scale up the amount of doing while scaling back the watching, to continue and expand the team and cooperative learning experiences, to integrate rather than overlay technology into all of the courses, and above all to do so while reducing costs!

The Physics course was a natural combination and extension of the CUPLE system,5 the M.U.P.P.E.T. materials,6 the Workshop Physics program,7 and the cooperative learning techniques. The approximately 700 students enrolled in the large semesters would be divided into 12-15 sections of 48-64 persons. The courses were reduced from six contact hours (two lecture, two recitation, and two lab) to four contact hours and taught either in two periods each two hours in length or in two 1.5 hour and one 1 hour period. Each course is led by a team of one faculty member, one graduate student, and one or two undergraduates. The mentoring of graduate students and undergraduate students is an important side effect of the redesigned course structure.

The reduction from six to four contact hours is an important aspect of stewardship of both student and faculty time and resources. In spite of the 1/3 reduction in contact hours, the evaluations are demonstrating that students learn the material better and faster.8 We also demonstrated that this approach could save $10,000 - $250,000 every time these courses were taught.

Creating the Studio Classroom Facility

The re-engineering of the course led directly to a redesign of the facilities. During 1993-95, we completely renovated seven classrooms to accommodate 48 to 64 students each in a comfortable workshop facility. Studio Classroom Layout There are 2 m long work tables, each designed for two students, with open work space, a computer workstation and the day's "hands-on" laboratory equipment. The tables form three concentric partial ovals with an opening at the front of the room for the teacher's work table and for projection. The workstations are arranged so that when students are working together on an assigned problem, they turn away from the center of the room and focus their attention on their own small-group workspace.

In any course, when the teacher wants to conduct a discussion or give a mini-lecture, he or she asks the students to turn back toward the center of the room. Students can work together as teams of two, or two teams may work together to form a small group of four. Discussion as a whole is facilitated by the semicircular arrangement of student chairs. This is particularly important since only about 20-40 percent of the time spent in the classroom is actually on the computers, the remainder is devoted to group activities, hands-on laboratories, and discussion.

This type of classroom is friendly even to those instructors who tend toward the traditional style of classroom in which most of the activities are teacher-centered rather than student-centered. Projection is easily accomplished, and all students have a clear view of both the instructor and any projected materials. As a facility in which the instructor acts more as a mentor/guide/advisor, the classroom is unequaled. Rather than separating the functions of lecture, recitation and laboratory, the instructor can move freely from lecture mode into discussion, and can assign a computer activity, ask the students to discuss their results with their community neighbours, and then ask them to describe the result to the class. Laboratory simply becomes another one of the classroom activities that is mixed in with everything else. This course uses the latest in computing tools and incorporates use of cooperative learning approaches.

During the Fall 1994 semester, the CUPLE Physics Studio was expanded to full deployment in all Physics I sections and Physics III sections and a pilot deployment in Physics II. In 1995 the Physics department voted unanimously to end the traditional course in favor of the full deployment of the Studio.

A recent statement in the Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that it is "harder to move a grave yard than to change the curriculum." The changes at Rensselaer are evidence that this need not always be the case.


Our experiences thus far with the Studio Courses have been very encouraging. Student response is particularly satisfying. They have been quite enthusiastic about the course as measured by responses on the end of semester surveys. Nearly twice as many students agree that they enjoyed the studio course as compared to the traditional lecture/recitation/lab format.

When asked whether they would cite a particular course as "a positive reason to attend Rensselaer," over 90% of the students agreed! This compares to 63% who agreed with this proposition in the other mathematics courses that had been downsized but did not abandon the traditional lecture approach.

Students in these courses are performing as well as or better than students in the traditional courses in spite of the 33.3% reduction in class contact time. This was demonstrated by student performance on tests matched in difficulty, length, and content to tests from previous years and those given this year in the traditional course. In both mathematics and physics, more topics were covered in the studio courses than in the lecture courses.

We have now launched a longitudinal study of student performance and attitude that will follow the students through their undergraduate career and two years into work or further study.

We recognize just how difficult it will be to measure and document these changes and also just how difficult it will be to convince the university to consider re-structuring their courses. The preliminary results are so encouraging that we are beginning to be optimistic. Even a grave yard can be moved with solid planning and strong execution.


  1. J. Wilson, "The CUPLE Physics Studio," The Physics Teacher 32(9), p 518-523 (Dec. 1994).

  2. J. Young, "The Studio Classroom," ASEE Prism, p 15 (January 1996).

  3. R. Schwartz, "The Virtual University," ASEE Prism 5(9), 22-26 (December 1995).

  4. W.F. Massy and R. Zemsky, "Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity," EDUCOM, (1995).

  5. J.M. Wilson, E.F. Redish, and C.K. McDaniel, "The Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment: Part I. Background and System Operation," Computers in Physics 6(2), (Mar/Apr 1992). and "Part II. Materials," Computers in Physics 6(3), (May/Jun 1992).

  6. W.M. MacDonald, E.F. Redish, and J.M. Wilson, "The M.U.P.P.E.T. Manifesto," Computers in Physics 1(1), 23 (July/Aug 1988).

  7. P. Laws, "Workshop Physics: Learning Introductory Physics by Doing It," Change Magazine, (July/Aug 1991).

  8. J. Wilson, "The CUPLE Physics Studio," The Physics Teacher 32(9), p 518-523 (Dec. 1994).

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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

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