6 October 2008

From blackboard teaching to experiments

The physics students at the Niels Bohr Institute are now being taught in a whole new way, which has given fantastically good results. The traditional form of teaching with lectures in large auditoriums is being supplemented with physics experiments, where the students themselves work with the experiments. This has resulted in a very high pass rate.

Physics is a subject with many difficult concepts and laws of nature to be learned and the teaching at the university traditionally occurs in large auditoriums where a teacher stands at the blackboard and explains by drawing and describing and making long mathematical calculations, while the students sit passively in their seats and try to understand the concepts.

It would just not do, thought Associate Professor Peter Ditlevsen, who teaches physics at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. “Lectures are an ineffective form of learning. The problem is that the students can be good at calculating, but they do not really completely understand what it is they are calculating and what the physics is about”, he explains.

So he wanted to change that. He wanted to make the teaching more active and give the students the opportunity to ‘get one’s fingers’ down into the physics by making experiments that were directly tied to the theoretical teaching.

It wasn’t just that easy, because these types of experiments do not exist, so Peter Ditlevsen had to find experiments and devise instruments. The instruments were developed in cooperation with the institute’s central workshop and instruments were developed and experiments were found for eight assignments.

Amazingly good results
The new course has been run once and in the exam that followed the students showed amazingly good results. Out of 115 students, 100 passed their exam – and with very fine grades at that and at the subsequent reexamination a further 8 students passed. That is very good as the pass rate is usually around 70 percent.

The success is in keeping with foreign results. For several years there have been studies of 6,000 physics students at a number of the best universities in the USA. The studies show that all of the students – both the very gifted and the less capable, learn considerably better through the active form of teaching.

So the conclusion is clear for Peter Ditlevsen, “I am definitely continuing the teaching method with physics experiments, where the students themselves perform experiments that are directly tied to the theoretical teaching”, he says and is pleased with the success.

See the TV-programme on the Niels Bohr Institute’s TV-channel, ScienceXplorer:

Video: Fysik på 1. klasse

Read articles about the studies from the USA


Fysikstudier, Harvard University, USA

Fysikstudier, Indiana University, USA (PDF)