Interactive Physics Teaching at Trent University

Do you want the best undergraduate

PHYSICS education in Canada?

              From its inception, Trent University has led the way in undergraduate teaching. Did you know Trent was the first university in Canada to provide study breaks in the middle of each term commonly known as reading week? This allows students the chance to consolidate their learning to that point, an approach that is now followed by most other Canadian universities.

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 their fellow students rather than merely listening and taking notes in lectures. From the beginning, the small-group tutorial system has been central to Trent's teaching methods. In the Physics Department, this has meant that, even in third and fourth year, all classes hold regular tutorial sessions to discuss the main physics concepts and to work on solving problems. This is quite different from the teaching in most universities, which do not hold any tutorials after first year.

Recently, our first-year physics class and some of our upper-year classes have been taught without conventional lectures at all. Why? Because 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.

At Trent, the first-year course is being taught in a manner pioneered by Professor Mazur of Harvard University (Peer Instruction, Prentice Hall):

  • Students do some basic reading before each lecture (notes are provided for this, with the text just acting to complement the notes and as a source of problems).
  • This frees class time for more apparatus demonstrations to clarify the main concepts, and for students to work in small groups on short questions that develop a true understanding of the material.
  • Students must grapple intellectually with the concepts for learning to occur; passive note-taking does not accomplish this. After each class question, the students vote for one of the multiple-choice answers using a Clicker, which gives the instructor instant feedback on class understanding.
  • The instructor then provides the correct analysis of the problem, and moves on to a new question.
  • Research by Mazur has shown that students taught with this method obtained exam grades substantially higher than those taught by the same instructor with a conventional lecture format.


Only at Trent University, you say?

Please contact Prof. Bill Atkinson, Chair of Physics, Trent University, Peterborough, ON, K9J 7B8, telephone (705)748-1011 ex.7715