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Striking a Balance In TEAL: Whether To Learn Or Inspire

By Yi Zhou

Three years since the first student outcry was raised against the large-scale implementation of 8.02T, Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) has endured as the predominant format for teaching the required 8.01 (Physics I) and 8.02 (Physics II) classes.

Many hours have gone into the effort to move the electricity and magnetism class away from the lecture hall and into a more active learning environment.

TEAL pioneer Professor John W. Belcher, an 8.02 lecturer when he conceptualized TEAL, felt that large, introductory-level lectures were “a lousy way to teach … Every evening before class I would go to 10-250 to write my lectures on the board” only to have less the half the class show up the next morning.

Belcher, along with Lecturer Peter Dourmashkin ’76 and Professor J. David Litster PhD 65, looked toward “active learning” as the solution, designing TEAL, a class that would increase attendance, encourage student interaction, and incorporate visualizations and experiments.

But after all the effort that went into creating and then improving the class, the emerging question is whether learning gains from TEAL outweigh the strong dissatisfaction most students have with the format, and by association, the subject.

Even Belcher, who has since decoupled from the program, has his doubts after receiving more criticism than praise. “I’m burnt out,” he says. “Why did I spend 60 hours a week for the past five, six years” on TEAL when this “is not the kind of research that’s respected at this Institute? The reason I do this is altruism.”

Most students do not bother to hide their dislike for TEAL. Their list of grievances is long and oft-repeated: the physical set-up of small tables makes it difficult to see the lecturer, the numerous homework assignments are tedious, the in-class problems are gone over too quickly, the students strong in physics end up doing all the work, and so on.

There is a sense among the faculty that many of the complaints come from misinformation and are often unfounded. Because electricity and magnetism is a challenging subject, students tend to misplace their frustration with the material on the format of the class, Dourmashkin said.

Even students acknowledge there is some scapegoating. “TEAL acts as a whipping boy,” said 8.02T undergraduate teaching assistant Michael Shaw ’07. “It has become the standard excuse. If you do badly, it’s because TEAL fails you.”

Though student complaints are numerous, a number of changes have in fact been integrated into TEAL since its inception. Professor Eric Hudson, course administrator for 8.02T, has worked on modifications including more undergraduate teaching assistants in the classroom, fewer experiments (a drop from 18 to 10), and an emphasis on faculty training. Still being tested is the new AIM screenname iheart802, which will allow students to instant message a TA during class.

But even with the changes, the irrefutable fact remains: students are uninspired by the course. Dourmashkin admits that “students don’t like to go to class,” while Professor John Joannopoulos, who teaches a section of 8.02T this semester, said that there is a “tendency for students to be lax and lose concentration.”

Freshman Sarah Levin ’09, currently a TEAL student, said that “all of TEAL is so unmotivating because it’s so tedious that I don’t put any effort into the class and because of it I’m losing a good percentage of my grade just by lack of attendance.”

Shaw sees this problem as well. “Students come out of TEAL with a dislike for physics, and they seem less inclined to major in physics. TEAL has never done a good job in instilling a sense of why [learning] this is important.”

“The large majority of 8.02T students will not need E&M anymore in their career,” said Professor Walter H.G. Lewin, who has formerly lectured both 8.01 and 8.02 to much acclaim. “Isn’t it more important that students are inspired? … To make students love science is way more important than to make sure that they remember Faraday’s Law.”

The problem with TEAL, he says, it that to be successful, it requires eight great lecturers, as opposed to just one in the lecture format.

On the other hand Belcher counters that “if it is a choice between learning gains and popularity I choose learning gains.” Several studies at other universities have shown that students who engage in “active learning” exhibit substantial learning gains, he said.

Belcher, in collaboration with an education researcher at the Technion, has shown these learning gains. At the beginning and end of the semester, the researchers administered a 20-question multiple choice test to TEAL and non-TEAL students that was designed to gauge students’ conceptual understanding of electromagnetism.

The study found that students in TEAL, both in Fall 2001 when it was optional and in Spring 2003, showed a greater improvement over the course of the semester than students in the Spring 2002 lecture/recitation class. More details about the study can be found online at

There are some weaknesses in the structure of the study, however; for instance, the conceptual tests were part of TEAL students’ course grades, while non-TEAL students were paid $40 for taking the test and freshmen were still on pass/no record in 2002, whereas the TEAL freshmen in Spring 2003 were on grades.

Will TEAL keep continue to adapt to criticism? Belcher said that though he is no longer working on TEAL, he sees the possibility of further modifications to the format that would better incorporate students’ wishes for a more standard class, while still retaining some participatory element.

There are “lots of ways to do active learning,” Belcher said, citing a study conducted at Harvard that exhibited stronger learner gains than TEAL in a lecture environment with regular student involvement. “The important thing is to have students interact with students,” he said.

The interspersing in TEAL of mini-lectures, experiments, and small group interaction has been successful to a large degree, said Thomas J. Greytak, physics professor and associate head of education for the department. As to what “exactly in the mix is working and how we use it, we are still figuring out.”