Alan Slavin (1993)

slavin2Affiliation at the time of the award: Trent University, Physics.

Citation: As an educator, Alan Slavin is second to none. His teaching is encouraging, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable, and as such, is tremendously effective. Not only is he an outstanding science educator, but also, a tremendous advocate of women in science. He believes strongly that the presence of female role models who are “doing” science may help to encourage more young women to keep up their science studies. In 1987, he organized a program whereby women studying physics and chemistry visited elementary classrooms to present science demonstrations. By avoiding the assumption of any particular gender for physicists, Al Slavin was able to encourage learning by all students. He is able to take abstract, sometimes obtuse subject matter and make it real, tangible and experiential for students. As an indication of how well he is respected by his students, he has received a number of Trent University Merit Awards and the Trent Symon’s Award in recognition of excellence in teaching. Al was awarded the 1996 Medal for Excellence in Undergraduate teaching from the Canadian Association of Physicists

As a colleague, Al is a constant source of ideas on teaching methods. He has written a workshop, used at Trent, for gifted high school students and independent study units used by high school students. He initiated the Peterborough Physics Teachers’ Association which brings together high school physics teachers and physics faculty from colleges and universities. He has been active in educational panels for teachers, and in lab design and delivery. He has also given a large number of public talks on science and the social consequences of technology.

Numerous studies of physics teaching over the last 20 years have shown that students learn much better when they use class time to interact intellectually with their professor and fellow students instead of merely listening and taking notes as in conventional lectures. This is no surprise when we realize that probably 90% of a conventional lecture is spent transferring information which the student can easily obtain from the written page, leaving only about 10% of class time to spend on the areas which students traditionally find most difficult. Moreover, most students are rushing so much to take down notes that they do not have time to think about what is being said, so the instructor’s clarifying remarks are lost to them.

Since September 1998, our first-year physics class has been taught without conventional lectures at all, using an approach pioneered by Professor Mazur of Harvard University1. Students are asked to read, before each lecture, what would previously have been covered in that lecture. Notes are provided in advance for this, with the textbook just acting to complement the notes and as a source of problems. Most of the class time is spent with the students working in small groups on short, multiple-choice questions that develop a conceptual understanding of the material. After each question, everyone votes on the correct answer by a showing of hands, which gives the instructor instant feedback on class comprehension. The instructor then explains the correct thinking — and often discusses logical flaws leading to the wrong answers — which lets the students correct their understanding. Then the class moves to a new question. Typically six such questions can be covered in a 50-minute class. Research by Mazur has shown that students taught with this method obtained exam grades up to 7% higher than those taught by the same instructor with a conventional lecture format, and with a much better conceptual understanding. Students like this format much better than conventional lectures.

Current interests: Analytical Skills. Classroom Techniques.

1. E. Mazur, Peer Instruction (Prentice Hall, 1997).