It has always been my philosophy that, when teaching a classroom full of students, perhaps the only way to reach all students is to have a variety of ways of presenting the course material. This always seemed logical because in a typical class there is a variety of ability among the students as well as a variety of ways each student best learns. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I tested my intuition with data. The data came from a survey given to a number of physics classes at the three levels we have at our high school: regular, honors and advanced placement (AP). The information below summarizes the results of the survey, along with the main conclusion that, without question, it is absolutely essential to teach in a variety of ways in order for all students to have a chance of learning at their highest level.
The survey that was passed out to physics classes consisted of a ranking system for sixteen (16) different activities/methods teachers may employ in their physics classes. While this was done only for physics classes, the survey should be relevant for any science discipline. The sixteen activities/methods were: Lecture, Research Papers, Small Group Discussions, Whole Class Discussions, Teacher Demonstrations, Quiz/Exam Prep by students, Homework, Laboratory Activities, Study Groups Outside Class, Reading the Textbook/Articles, Computer Simulations/Activities, Tutoring/Being Tutored, Projects, Field Trips, Review Sessions for Exams, and Videos/PowerPoint Presentations. Although this is not an exhaustive list of what a teacher may do in a science class, it gives a reasonable range of activities
Students were asked to rate each of these teaching techniques/activities on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 represented an activity that students feel is “most helpful” in their learning of course material, and a 1 represented an activity that the student felt is not effective in their learning.
Surveys were distributed to physics students in regular, honors, and AP classes. We received 117 returned surveys from regular classes (57 males, 60 females), 61 surveys from honors classes (27 males, 34 females), and 86 surveys from AP classes (64 males, 22 females). Table 1 below shows the percentage of students in each level of physics who rated the activity as a 5 (still trying to get a table formatted properly...anyone know how to do this in Blogger?). The first observation that stood out in the data is that every one of the activities on the survey had multiple students rate it as being something they thought was very important in their learning of physics. Several activities also stick out, with the top three being Teacher Demonstrations, Review Sessions, and Field Trips (not entirely surprising). Teacher Demonstrations and Review Sessions were the only two activities that had an overall average of above 4 on the rating scale. The three least beneficial activities according to the survey were Research Papers, Computer Activities, and Projects. These were the only three activities that had an overall average below 2.7 on the scale.
Activity Regular(M) Regular(F) Honors(M) Honors(F) AP(M) AP(F)
Lecture 5 10 18 23 33 27
Research Papers 7 3 11 9 9 5
Small Group Work 7 13 18 9 25 27
Demonstrations 49 47 41 59 41 36
Class Discussions 21 32 33 35 20 23
Quiz/Exam Prep 12 27 35 32 28 32
Homework 5 15 11 20 19 59
Laboratory Activity 14 25 13 18 11 23
Study Groups 3 3 8 18 17 14
Reading Text 7 8 11 9 11 5
Computer Activities 5 3 0 0 3 0
Tutoring/Tutored 21 15 15 18 23 23
Projects 7 2 8 9 6 9
Field Trips 38
Review Sessions 28 48 22 47 45 50
Videos/PowerPoint 16 17 4 15 5 9
Table 1: Responses of 5 (Most Helpful to Learning) by male and female students in regular, honors and AP physics classes. Numbers refer to percentage of students who rated the activity as a 5. There were 57 regular male students, 60 regular female students, 27 honors male students, 34 honors male students, 64 AP male students, and 22 AP female students who responded.
Another interesting aspect of the data lies in the ability to statistically compare different groups of students. For example, the ratings on a particular activity can be compared between male and female students, and they can be compared between white and African-American students. Evanston Township High School has a student population that is roughly half white and half minority (about 40% African-American), and in our case it is important to identify if there are significant differences in how different groups of students learn (or at least perceive how they think they best learn).
Two-sample t-tests were performed between different groups, where the average values of the group’s rating for a specific activity was compared to another group. A t-test of this sort determines the probability that there is a statistical difference between the rating values, and therefore a difference in how groups believe they best learn. I had groups of my AP Physics students who were also in AP Statistics perform the t-tests. Several interesting results were found. For instance, it was discovered that male students feel they learn better than female students when lectures are given. Another example is that there is a large statistical difference between how white and African-American students believe they learn from lectures, with white students being more comfortable within a lecture environment. African-American students, on the other hand, believe they learn significantly better from laboratory activities than white students. Apparently African-American students seem to feel they learn best when actively involved in hands-on, interactive activities. It should be noted that physics courses at our school are quite segregated by race, with the majority of African-American physics students taking regular physics, while the AP classes are almost entirely white. Honors sections also have an under-represented fraction of African-American students. As one progresses from regular to AP physics, the percentage of lecture time in class increases because of the nature of AP exams, where problem-solving is emphasized more than laboratory skills. The data seem to suggest one possible contribution to the very low percentage of minority enrollment in AP Physics has to due with the growing emphasis on an activity that is more ineffective for their learning of physics. This is something that should be looked at carefully by teachers and investigated further.
Other activities white students preferred significantly more than African-American students, as given through the t-tests, were research papers, small group work, study groups outside of school, and tutoring. African-American students reported that doing laboratory exercises, having class discussions, and viewing videos are some of the best ways they learn, and that they prefer over white students. These data have shed some light and have given us some things to think about as we approach classroom planning and activities.
I encourage other science teachers to give similar surveys at their schools. I was not surprised by the fact that variety in a classroom is a primary goal for all teachers, but the data did suggest that how we approach classes with different groups represented may need to focus more on some teaching options than others. While the results for physics classes in Evanston show several differences in how students believe they best learn, it is likely other differences would show up at other schools and in other science courses. Local surveys and analysis could lead to useful and interesting results that may help improve our ability to most effectively reach every student in our classes.