Evidence Based Science Education: My Friend Taught Me Quantum Mechanics | By Geoff Woollard

Several years ago the University of British Columbia hired Carl Wieman, a physics nobel Laureate, to improve science education. The initiative was lead by a team called the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI). The CWSEI team replaced rote memorization, 100% finals, and passive lectures with something more engaging and interactive: conceptual understanding, carefully constructed assignments, and in lecture peer-to-peer learning exercises. Their motto is “effective science education, backed by evidence”. See here for a technical report.


CWSEI works with biologists, chemistry, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and all their prefixed and suffixed combinations to redesign courses. A subject -based expert meets with the professors and helps design and tweak the lecture material, assignments, and exams. During my undergraduate education many of my courses were transformed. In first year, CWSEI had already revamped biology, chemistry and physics, in second year, cell biology and organic chemistry, and in third year human genetics, molecular genetics, differential equations, and quantum mechanics. But what was the most successful transformation? It was not the cell biology discussion group, where we drew concept maps on a white board. It is was not the marine biology field trip course, nor the cell biology course with online quizzes and interactive videos of metabolites zooming between organelles. Neither was it a course with case based learning; the kind popular in health sciences. Interestingly enough, the most successful transformation happened in my axiomatic quantum mechanics class.


I chose to write about this course in particular, since it was so different from a typical theoretical course, like classical mechanics or thermodynamics, where equation after equation is derived on the chalk board. However, many of my classmates did not flourish in “CWSEI” courses, and so the stories that I share serve to show how I learn, and the reason for pursuing the degree I did. I think some stories might interest learners who like the same stuff as me. I did not study science in order to go to med school. I want to understand theoretical insights at such a profoundly deep level that I can apply them to fields of knowledge that do not even exist yet. So if you are curious about quantum computing or quantum biology, then read on.


Our class met three times per week for one hour, as any other class would. The official name was ‘learning events’ instead of ‘lecture’. Class started with a quick quiz on the pre-reading material, with the answers given immediately after in order to reinforce the concept. Then the professor proposed a simple but fundamental problem, which we would work on for the rest of class. From this point on, control of the class was relinquished. Success or failure was in our hands. No one was going to spoon-feed us the answer. These problems had many steps, each with a clear objective in mind, but with no immediate formula to arrive at the answer. We would form groups of 3 people, and struggle together to solve some physics mystery. We boldly proposed ideas and thought them through to contradiction, or followed them and took a step in the right direction. We were our own tribunal. When a consensus had been reached, we would write down a solution on paper to be submitted for completion marks at the end of class. We were teaching each other quantum mechanics.


We weren’t left totally alone. Every 10 minutes or so, the professor would check in with the class to see where we were at. He explained the answer, which the majority of the class had correctly come up with, speak to common pitfalls, and pose the next stage in the problem.


We used a clicker system, so that we could provide instant feedback. A clicker is basically a hand-held gizmo that allows you to answer multiple choice questions in an anonymous way. We answered based on our understanding of the material, instead of looking around to see what everyone else was saying. Once we saw the results, we would be allowed to talk with each other, and retry. If the class still lacked consensus then a student would be called on from each group to defend her answer. We would not move forward until everyone was on the same page.


Some students found this incredibly frustrating, particularly the engineering students who had a heavy course load and found the pre-reading material lengthy, and who were pressured to skip class to finish upcoming projects and assignments. I sympathized with their complaints, especially complaints against the “just-in-time” pre-reading approach that was still in beta version. My classmates and I waited for emails to let us know what pages we would have some clicker questions on at the beginning of class. Once the professor emailed us only hours before our lecture began.


The assignments were another adventure. Each week when I went to office hours, I witnessed my professor mulling over the previous assignment with the physics expert from CWSEI. The asked each other questions like, “How did the students take this one? Did they use this approach? Why do you think they got confused? What question could we make for class this week to drive home the message?”. This took hours of extra time. My professor was dedicated, he wanted to bring every student from a state of confusion to mastery. He would often ask us for inspiration, “why was this question so hard and this other one easy?”, “what were you confused about at first?”, “what helped you understand it?”. He wanted students who understood the material to partner up with someone less confident and be a teacher. This helps the student teacher, since he will remember it longer and understand it more completely. You don’t realize what you know (or don’t know) until you try to teach it.


This type of learning is motivated by Wieman’s observation that students typically lose much of their training within a few months or terms of learning it. What are some of the ways that the university can facilitate the retention of information? In order to reinforce concepts and techniques, students need to see the same material again, but applied in a new context. This requires different courses to coordinate their syllabi, and fill in gaps left by other courses, instead of just getting through all the material, and getting a good mark on the final.


The mid term exam shocked the class. I remember it quite clearly, since a lot of us were not happy with how we did. We had lots of regrets, such as, “if only I had more time!”, “I knew I should have gone with my first answer”, “the question was asking for that”. The next class, we had the exam all over again! After discussing our confusion about the exam in the first part of the class, we then were allowed to write a near-identical exam. I forget the final marking scheme, but I think it was the average of the two exams, but only if that brought the mark up. Therefore, this was the type of course where hard work paid off – if we put in the time, we laid a foundation for further study.


I recently read a book of interviews with a seasoned educator. He compared education to a walk between the ‘danger zone’ and the ‘safe zone’. The danger zone is new and uncomfortable material, while the safe zone is known and easy material. Too much time in the danger zone is frustrating while too much time in the safe zone is boring. A good teacher leads students from the safe zone into the danger zone, and thus extends the safe zone a little further[1]. The “CWSEI ” teaching methods balance time in the two zones. This is in stark contrast with courses that recycle decades of old multiple choice questions for exams (safe zone), where professors follow the textbook like an instruction manual (safe zone), and where students are left to ‘figure it out on their own’ without providing the necessary amount of intervention (danger zone).


But is this CWSEI learning method just another fad? I would claim that the current standard in the top Canadian research universities (University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill, etc.) is more of a fad, and the sooner it passes the better!  These ‘top’ universities pack hundreds of students into a room with uncomfortable chairs expect them to master the material. Students never meet with each other but are expected to talk about the material in class. Students are expected to learn from a text to which they cannot ask questions. Students seldom ask questions to the professor since they are shy, intimidated, confused, bored, or simply want class to end as soon as possible. This system is broken and CWSEI is trying to change that.


In an interview for an alumni magazine, my quantum mechanics professor later confessed that he was worried about what the class would think about him; was he doing his job? Would we respect and listen to him or would chaos ensue? But what he found simply shocked him. He expressed this in his own words, “In a traditional lecture, you can do jumping jacks, cartwheels and back flips and you’d get some of the students’ attention for maybe 10 seconds. But now I had the undivided attention of the entire class for three whole minutes they were primed, it was my window of precious lecture time and I knew I had to make it count.”[2]


CWSEI’s take home message is that professors can improve their teaching by not settling for the bare minimum. They have to invest time and work hand in hand with   professional science educators like CWSEI, but it’s worth it.  Professors can carefully construct challenging assignments, propose deep foundational questions that make newbies like me squirm, and give some control of the class to the students. This is all up to my professor, but can I do anything to help? A student who has just learned something can explain it to her friend much more effectively than an expert who has forgotten how she learned it in the first place. As a student, I have something to offer to my fellow student that my professor lacks – a ‘eureka’ moment.


[1]Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words. Putnam, 2013.

[2] Teachable Moments: What It Takes to Transform a Science Class. Synergy 1 2012. The Journal of the Faculty of Science, University of British Columbia.

  • Geoffrey Woollard

    Photo credit: Jie Qi – “Illustrates Schrodinger’s cat paradox using Necker cube.” from technolojie.com