Classroom demonstrations

Lecture demonstrations have two important purposes: to increase student understanding of the concepts demonstrated, and to increase student enjoyment of class. Previous studies have cast doubt on whether traditional demonstrations accomplish the first, finding that passive observation of demonstrations does not significantly improve student understanding of the associated concepts. Indeed, many students alter their memory of demonstrations to match their ideas about the underlying physics! Does the presentation of a demonstration affect its effectiveness? If students are required to predict the outcome of a demonstration and discuss their predictions with one another before the demonstration, they think more actively about the demonstration and its explanation, and have opportunities to discover inconsistencies or weaknesses in their own thinking. We are studying whether this strategy improves student understanding of the demonstration. We identified four possible modes of demonstration presentation:

  • no demonstration
  • show and tell (traditional approach)
  • predict (students predict the outcome individually before seeing the demonstration)
  • predict and discuss (students predict the outcome individually, then discuss their predictions with others, before seeing the demonstration)
Each demonstration was presented to part of the class in each of these modes during discussion sections.

At the end of the semester, we gave a free-response test in which students were asked to predict and explain the outcome of physical situations similar or identical to the demonstrations. Initial analysis suggests a small improvement in performance when students have to predict the outcome of a demonstration before seeing it; follow-up studies are in progress.

Classroom Demonstrations: Learning Tools or Entertainment?, at Physics colloquium, Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA), Friday, April 19, 2002:
Classroom science demonstrations are intended to serve two important purposes: to increase students’ interest in the material being covered and to improve students’ understanding of the underlying scientific concepts. Student end-of-semester evaluations typically praise demonstrations as one of the most interesting parts of a course, suggesting that demonstrations accomplish the first objective. What about the second? Do demonstrations effectively help students learn the underlying concepts? We examined whether the mode of presentation of demonstrations affects their effectiveness as teaching... Read more about Classroom Demonstrations: Learning Tools or Entertainment?
Visualizations and visual illusions: how the mind tricks us, at NATO ASI Course on New developments in optics and related fields: modern techniques, materials, and applications, Centro Ettore Majorana (Erice, Italy), Saturday, June 11, 2005:
Neurobiology and cognitive psychology have made great progress in understanding how the mind processes information – in particular visual information. The knowledge we can gain from these fields has important implications for the presentation of visual information and student learning.
Classroom demonstrations: education or entertainment?, at American Association of Physics Teachers Winter 2000 Meeting (Kissimmee, FL), Tuesday, January 18, 2000:
Classroom demonstrations have two important purposes: to increase student understanding of physical concepts and to enhance interest in the subject matter. Do demonstrations in fact achieve the first of these goals? Does the manner of presentation determine the effectiveness of demonstrations as teaching tools? To answer these questions, we presented several demonstrations to different sections of an introductory physics course in different ways: (1) students were asked to predict the outcome before the demonstration, (2) students were shown the demonstration and told how it works (... Read more about Classroom demonstrations: education or entertainment?
Visualizations and visual illusions: how the mind tricks us, at A Year of Physics Public Lecture, North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro, NC), Wednesday, November 9, 2005:
Neurobiology and cognitive psychology have made great progress in understanding how the mind processes information – in particular visual information. The knowledge we can gain from these fields has important implications for the presentation of visual information and student learning.
Classroom Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?, at Physics colloquium, Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), Thursday, September 27, 2001:
Classroom demonstrations in science courses are intended to serve two important purposes: to increase students’ interest in the material being covered and to improve students’ understanding of the underlying scientific concepts. Student end-of-semester evaluations typically praise demonstrations as one of the most interesting parts of a course, suggesting that demonstrations accomplish the first objective. What about the second? Do demonstrations effectively help students learn the underlying concepts? We examined whether the manner of presentation of demonstrations affects their... Read more about Classroom Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?
Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?, at 124th AAPT National Meeting (Philadelphia, PA), Wednesday, January 23, 2002:
Does the manner of presentation determine the effectiveness of demonstrations as teaching tools? To answer this question, we improved a 1998 study by presenting seven demonstrations to sections of an introductory physics course in different ways: (1) students were shown the demonstration and the outcome explained (traditional); (2) students predicted the outcome before the demonstration; (3) students completed a worksheet in which they predicted the outcome, compared their prediction to what was observed, and resolved any inconsistency through discussion; (4) no demonstration was shown. At... Read more about Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?
Do students learn more from some demonstrations than others?, at 2002 National Summer Conference: "Integrating Science and Mathematics Education Research into Teaching", University of Maine (Orono, ME), Monday, June 24, 2002:
We previously compared the effectiveness of different modes of performing classroom demonstrations and found that students who passively observe demonstrations understand the underlying concepts no better than students who do not see the demonstration at all.* Furthermore, students who simply predict the demonstration outcome before seeing it display significantly greater understanding. Here, we extend this study to examine the role of pedagogy with demonstrations developed as part of a research-based curriculum designed to address student misconceptions. We selected individual demonstrations... Read more about Do students learn more from some demonstrations than others?
Visualization and visual illusions: how the mind tricks us, at Mazur/Rogers/Cambridge Public School District Fair, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), Wednesday, August 31, 2005:
Neurobiology and cognitive psychology have made great progress in understanding how the mind processes information – in particular visual information. The knowledge we can gain from these fields has important implications for the presentation of visual information and student learning.
Classroom Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?, at Physics Colloquium, Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), Thursday, September 27, 2001
Classroom demonstrations in science courses are intended to serve two important purposes: to increase students’ interest in the material being covered and to improve students’ understanding of the underlying scientific concepts. Student end-of-semester evaluations typically praise demonstrations as one of the most interesting parts of a course, suggesting that demonstrations accomplish the first objective. What about the second? Do demonstrations effectively help students learn the underlying concepts? We examined whether the manner of presentation of demonstrations affects their... Read more about Classroom Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?
Classroom Demonstrations: Learning Tools or Entertainment?, at Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN), Wednesday, August 2, 2006:
Classroom science demonstrations are intended to serve two important purposes: to increase students' interest in the material being covered and to improve students' understanding of the underlying scientific concepts. Student end-of-semester evaluations typically praise demonstrations as one of the most interesting parts of a course, suggesting that demonstrations accomplish the first objective. What about the second? Do demonstrations effectively help students learn the underlying concepts? We examined whether the mode of presentation of demonstrations affects their effectiveness as teaching... Read more about Classroom Demonstrations: Learning Tools or Entertainment?
Classroom Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?, at Physics Colloquium, Worcestert Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, MA), Monday, November 19, 2001
Classroom demonstrations in science courses are intended to serve two important purposes: to increase students’ interest in the material being covered and to improve students’ understanding of the underlying scientific concepts. Student end-of-semester evaluations typically praise demonstrations as one of the most interesting parts of a course, suggesting that demonstrations accomplish the first objective. What about the second? Do demonstrations effectively help students learn the underlying concepts? We examined whether the manner of presentation of demonstrations affects their... Read more about Classroom Demonstrations: More Than Just Entertainment?
C. H. Crouch, A. P. Fagen, J. Paul Callan, and E. Mazur. 2004. “Classroom Demonstrations: Learning Tools or Entertainment?” Am. J. Phys., 72, Pp. 835–838. Publisher's VersionAbstract
We compared student learning from different modes of presenting classroom demonstrations, in order to determine how much students learn from traditionally presented demonstrations, and whether this learning can be enhanced by simply changing the mode of presentation and thereby increasing student engagement. Students who passively observe demonstrations understand the underlying concepts no better than students who do not see the demonstration at all. Students who predict the demonstration outcome before seeing it, however, display significantly greater understanding.
K. Anne Miller, N. Lasry, K. Chu, and E. Mazur. 2013. “Role of physics lecture demonstrations in conceptual learning.” PRST, 9(2), Pp. –. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Previous research suggests that students’ prior knowledge can interfere with how they observe and remember lecture demonstrations. We measured students’ prior knowledge in introductory mechanics and electricity and magnetism at two large universities. Students were then asked to predict the outcome of lecture demonstrations. We compare students’ predictions before having seen the demonstration to what they report having seen both right after the demonstration and several weeks later. We report four main findings. First, roughly one out of every five observations of a demonstration is inconsistent with the actual outcome. Second, students who understand the underlying concepts before observing the demonstration are more likely to observe it and remember it correctly. Third, students are roughly 20% (23%) more likely to observe a demonstration correctly if they predict the outcome first, regardless of whether the prediction is correct or not. Last, conceptual learning is contingent on the student making a correct observation. This study represents an initial step towards understanding the disconnect reported between demonstrations and student learning.