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TEAL: Building Resistance

Aditya Kohli

The design of one of the most costly experiments in MIT’s recent history does not include a control. Instead, it forces subjects to attend, while compensating them with nothing but inefficiency. In case you haven’t read the title, the experiment is TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) physics, and it was introduced in the spring of 2001 as a new way of teaching in response to low attendance in freshman physics classes; attendance is part of the TEAL Grade.

Much literature has been published on the success of TEAL in teaching MIT introductory physics. In fact, based on results from a series of quizzes administered before and after the class material, students enrolled in 8.01T outperformed those enrolled in 8.01. This data should buttress the viability and hype the novelty of the TEAL program, but, unfortunately, it is meaningless, as there is no control to the experiment. TEAL is mandatory; lecture was not. Performance will inevitably be higher if students attend all classes instead of half of them — if 8.01 students had attended all lectures, chances are test results would be on par with or higher than those of the TEAL system. Before completely converting to the TEAL system, MIT should have tested mandatory recitation attendance in 8.01.

TEAL prides itself on being more personalized than lecture-based teaching, but it fails miserably. How can a course that forces students to stare at a PowerPoint presentation for four hours a week be personal? Though there are some very talented lecturers in TEAL, they are held back by a restraint of bureaucracy: they must adhere to the standard presentation. Moreover, the course arrogantly assumes that students will understand everything on first pass. There are no recitations and thus no opportunities for students to clear up misconceptions from class and learn problem-solving techniques. Students are expected to clear up misconceptions by attending office hours, however, at office hours two weeks ago, 70 students came with questions while two TA’s were present to help. The focus of the course seems to be its logistics, not its students.

Yet another pillar of the TEAL complex is its emphasis on group learning. Twice a week, students, in groups of three, conduct experiments and solve group problems. Unfortunately, all three students rarely participate in these sessions — the brightest student or students will solve the problem and conduct the experiment. The others watch in awe. Since much of an 8.02T grade is dependent on these experiments, students are more interested in getting the answer right than understanding the concepts behind it.

Recently, there has been much turmoil regarding widespread cheating on pre-labs — students have been copying last year’s solutions from the Internet. While this column is not meant to condone such behavior, it is not difficult to sympathize with students. When one has a two-hour mastering physics assignment due Sunday, and then a four hour problem set, there is little incentive to complete a pre-lab that is longer than and worth less than the problem set, especially when the answers to the prelab are readily available. The administration of the class needs to recognize that if cheating is so deeply embedded in the culture of the class, there is an issue with the class dynamic. (Altered prelab questions or shorter pre-labs would solve the copying problem.)

TEAL is first and foremost inefficient. There are eight sections. Each section has a professor, a graduate TA, and several undergraduate TA’s — all of whom are paid. However, the desired personalized atmosphere is not obtained. While professors lecture, TA’s are inactive. They circulate only during group problem solving periods and therefore not with the intent of clarifying concepts. They are facilitators, not teachers. If the millions spent on renovating TEAL classrooms and paying these instructors were instead put towards holding smaller lectures and recitations, a truly close environment coupled with effective teaching would result, as the instructor to student ratio would be very low.

If TEAL truly is working, why do a large number of 8.02T students religiously watch Professor Walter HG Lewin’s lecture videos during TEAL class?