Furtak Teaching Philosophy

Active-Engagement / Inquiry-Based Instruction

Finding out about how people (at any age) learn has been one of the principal objectives of educational psychology. During the last decade physics teachers have finally started paying attention to this important collection of findings, and have conducted their own educational experiments. The results are pretty dramatic. They show us that very little learning takes place during a conventional college lecture. The person(s) doing the talking is(are) the person(s) doing the thinking. If you stand the door of one of these classrooms you'll see what I mean. Take a look at the faces of the students. They may be thinking alright, but they're thinking about the upcoming weekend, not the content being "dished out" at the front of the room. There are much better ways to teach.

Students have to be actively involved in a dynamic exchange. They need to be discussing the issues, problems, and concepts. But more than this, they also need to be creative. These higher-order cognitive activities help build structure, insight, and thought processes that are not only the very best way to learn difficult ideas, but also are essential qualities of a successful professional. There are many ways to encourage active-engagement learning in the classroom. However, what is really necessary is a new approach to teaching.

This theme was the subject of my presentation as the CSM 2001 Faculty Senate Distinguished Lecturer, entitled "It's Time for a Change to a More Effective Paradigm in College Teaching"

The Physics Learning Studio

We have applied this philosophy in the design of the Physics Learning Studio, the environment in which all Mines students learn calculus-based introductory physics. The studio is an integrated, computer-assisted learning system that we have developed over a period of 15 years. It is taught in a specially designed classroom in the Center for Technology and Learning Media (CTLM).

We use a two-day learning cycle, with two of these cycles per week. Each cycle includes a one-hour session designed to provide an overview and demonstration of new topics. Students participate in these sessions through wireless personal communicators. The instructor can obtain immediate feedback about understanding of difficult concepts. The second part of the cycle is a two-hour session in the studio classroom. Students work in partnerships, using the equipment provided at computer workstations. They learn how to form accurate descriptions of their observations using both simple and sophisticated hands-on experiments. Many activities involve real-time simulations that allow investigations of scenarios that are difficult to physically create. Considerable time is devoted to tutoring in problem-solving and structured practice. Most of the lessons rely heavily on the visualization, data acquisition, computation, and the communication power of networked computers. The faculty instructor in the studio is a facilitator and coach. The instructor is assited by up to five student learning assitants.

Students respond well to this approach. They enjoy the social aspect of the environment. They become engaged with the material and they stay with it. Our assessment of the studio teaching method has been very encouraging. The students are a much better understanding of the fundamentals of physics. In addition, they are learning problem-solving skills more effectively. Follow-up evaluations have shown that students are now doing better in their upper level courses.