A quiet revolution is taking place in the way physics is being taught in colleges and universities across the US. Increasing numbers of professors are moving away from the traditional lectures to a format that puts the student, rather than themselves, at the center of what’s going on in the classroom. These new forms of teaching take various names: directed inquiry; modeling instruction; active learning, etc.

Here at Bay, we have long practiced student-centered instruction, especially in mathematics. Now, we are applying this approach to the Conceptual Physics course taken by all entering freshmen. From day one, students are working in groups of 3 or 4, in front of a whiteboard, on a series of “investigations.” Each investigation is really a series of challenging questions that carefully lead students toward an important physical concept. Often the questions can only be answered by doing experiments and careful measurements.


In some investigations, the experiments involve very basic equipment, like a stopwatch and a ruler. In other investigations, students use electronic sensors controlled by software running on their laptops. Sometimes students are asked to perform curve-fitting using powerful programs such as Excel. Other times, they are asked to do the math in their heads. In all investigations, the “bottom line” for each question is a carefully-worded sentence or two that each group writes on its own whiteboard.

As teachers, our job is to focus on each group’s progress through the investigation. We visit each group every few minutes and read what’s on their whiteboard. If we spot unsupported conclusions or imprecise wording, we help the group by asking questions, not by providing answers. In this way, each group must reason its way through every question, completely understanding every step they take of along the way. When everyone is satisfied with what is on the whiteboard, students take a few minutes to type notes into their own electronic copy of the investigation.

Students also spend 15 to 60 minutes a day on homework. The homework bears directly upon the investigation the students just completed. To make homework more useful and effective, we are using the online homework system WebAssign. WebAssign provides immediate feedback to students when they submit responses to numerical and multiple-select questions. We like to ask students to explain their reasoning in short essays. WebAssign helps teachers review those essays so we can provide specific, timely feedback.

Clearly, traditional lectures do reach some students. But with an investigation-based approach, we feel we are getting closer to reaching everyone.


The trend away from lecture is informed by an expanding body of research comparing the effectiveness of various teaching methods. For further information, the following links might be helpful:

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  • Don’t Lecture Me: Rethinking How College Students Learn
  • Scale-Up
  • The TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) project at MIT
  • What is TEAL?
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