Pseudoteaching: MIT Physics

What is pseudoteaching?

This term was inspired by Dan Meyer’s pseudocontext, which sought to find examples of textbook problems that on the surface seemed to be about real world problems and situations, but actually were about make believe contexts that had little connection to the real world, other than the photographs that framed the problems.

After reading many of Dan’s pseudocontext posts, John Burk and I had the idea of pseudoteaching [PT] which we have defined as:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

We hope that though discussion, we’ll be able to clarify and refine this definition even further. The key idea of pseudoteaching is that it looks like good teaching. In class, students feel like they are learning, and any observer who saw a teacher in the middle of pseudoteaching would feel like he’s watching a great lesson. The only problem is, very little learning is taking place.

The Scene

Take, for example, Walter Lewin’s amazing physics lectures at MIT, which are available online at MIT OpenCourseware [Mechanics | E&M].

Professor Lewin is full of energy. He clearly loves physics, and he also loves sharing it with his students. His demonstrations were thrillling. His board work was impeccable. Lewin worked hard to make it look effortless — he ran through each lecture 3 times before presenting it to students.

The Breakdown

So what happened result as the semester progressed? Attendance at his physics lectures fell 40% by the end of the term and an average of 10% of students failed Mechanics and 14% failed E&M. Surprised?

If you look past his enthusiasm and his displays of physics awesomeness, Lewin was pseudoteaching. It looks like good teaching, but he was the one doing all the talking. It looks like the students are learning, but they were just sitting there watching. It’s like trying to learn to play piano or play a sport by watching your teacher or coach. It doesn’t work well.

Ironically, it was over 30 years before Lewin’s famous lectures that the great physicist Richard Feynman realized more interactive engagement is necessary. From page xxix of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces (a “greatest-hits” of his lectures to freshman when he taught introductory physics at Cal Tech from 1961-1963):

I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher—a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things. It’s impossible to learn very much by simply sitting in a lecture, or even by simply doing problems that are assigned. But in our modem times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal. Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students, they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures. Perhaps they will have fun thinking them through—or going on to develop some of the ideas further.

June 1963

The Resolution

So what did MIT do after Lewin’s show-stopping lectures failed to change declining attendance and large failure rates? They created interactive learning spaces like TEAL, which stands for Technology Enhanced Active Learning. From the New York Times article “At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard”:

Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.

Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.

For more information on TEAL, I suggest reading “Why TEAL Works” and “Lessons Learned from TEAL”.

But you don’t need a high-tech classroom filled with bright-and-shiny gadgets to do what M.I.T. did. A class set of  $2 Interactive Whiteboards will do just fine.

I admit I was “doin’ the Lewin” my first years of teaching. I was up late each night, creating Powerpoints and crafting worksheets. All students had to do was follow along and fill in the blanks. Then I’d work a problem on the chalkboard and the students would finish the rest for homework. The next day, the whole cycle would repeat with a new topic.  I planned lessons by answering the question “What am I going to do in class tomorrow?” Now, I plan lessons by answering the questions “What are my students going to do tomorrow? How will it help them progress towards our learning goals?”

Pseudoteaching was relatively easy. It fit nicely with The Hidden Contract that exists in the majority of classrooms. I still fall back lazily into pseudoteaching on occasion, especially when I feel pressed for time or when I sense student resistance to work. Real teaching provides struggles (large and small, for teachers and students) each day.

What’s your pseudoteaching story?

Head on over to my pseduoteaching page where you’ll curretly find links to other new pseudoteaching posts from John Burk, Dan Meyer, Rhett Allain, and Jerrid Kruse, which all went live today. (You can also access the pseudoteaching page from the menu in my blog header.)

We all hope pseudoteaching will become a valuable lens for critically examining our own teaching, and that the idea will spread to other teachers as well. We’d love for you to contribute your own examples of pseudoteaching. Just email me a link to your pseudoteaching post and I’ll add it. Thanks!


57 responses to “Pseudoteaching: MIT Physics

  1. Your blog matters.

    What school do you teach at, are they looking for anyone?

    • Hi Shawn,
      Thanks for your kind words. I at John Jay High School in Cross River, NY. And we are not looking for anyone right now. Though I expect a retirement in 5 years or so. You’d move all the way out here from Iowa?

  2. Pingback: [PT] Pseudoteaching FAQ « Quantum Progress

  3. At the TIMSS video website, , you can download reports that compare instruction in U.S.A. 8th grade science classes with Japanese, Australian, and other high-scoring nations’ instruction.

    Reports indicate that U.S. science instruction is characterized by high-interest activities that teachers don’t connect to concept development. Story lines are weak or non-existent. Science is organized as facts, algorithms, and definitions. Students don’t learn much, as measured by TIMSS.

    On the other hand, Japanese and Australian instruction have a coherent content story line in which ideas, evidence, and activities are carefully sequenced and explicitly connected. Teachers in those high-scoring nations engage students in inquiry and using evidence to develop concepts.

  4. The difference between teachers who psuedoteach versus involving students in their learning is very interesting. When did you make the switch? What clicked for you to change your teaching style?


    • For me, personally, it was attending a Modeling Physics workshop. Prior to that, I was my teaching was becoming increasingly activity-based (as compared to my first year). But what I was lacking was the framework, connections, and student engagement beyond “hands-on.” Modeling instruction provided that for me.

  5. It strikes me that “good” teaching- authentic, student driven, inquiry based teaching can quickly become pseudoteaching if the time for students to fully process and make connections is not present.

    • Bingo! Pseudoteaching isnt’ simply “lecture is evil” and “activities are good.” It’s more subtle than that, I hope these post bring out those nuances and help drive reflection on our own teaching.

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  7. How drastic are the changes required to move Dr. Lewin-style lecture away from “pseudo teaching” and towards “teaching”? Is it as simple as the introduction of points in the lesson where students are asked to make predictions or to form explanations and discuss them with classmates, or does it require something more drastic?

    • Well, MIT completely restructured the course. At Harvard, physics professor Eric Mazur faced a similar problem. He developed the Peer Instruction model. Here are some links for more info:

      Here’s a video of PI in action:

      For a brief description of PI, see “Farewell, Lecture?”

      In fact, if you use PI questioning but replace the clickers with lettered index cards, you get the same results. See “Clickers or Flashcards: Is There Really a Difference?”

      And if you have some time on your hands, you can watch Mazur’s presentation “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer”:

      And there’s also Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, which have also proven effective:

  8. Thanks for clarifying, I think it’s important to establish that the distance between PT and T is not so great. If our goal is to have more of our colleagues embrace these techniques, then we do them a disservice by appearing to indicate that everything they’ve been doing is “bad” or “wrong.” I’ve had positive results through addition of P-O-E demos (so Dr. Lewin types can still do the eye-catching demos, which admittedly were a big part of what drew me to physics as a student) and PI interludes during lecture/discussion. TEAL strikes me as a huge shift in style, as does Modeling. Those shifts can seem awfully intimidating to instructors, to the point that they won’t try them (recent data from the AIP indicates that implementation of PER strategies is veeeeery minimal in high schools). Gateway drugs (for lack of a better term) such as PI, interactive whiteboarding, ranking tasks, etc. might possibly be more appealing as they can be implemented with (relatively) minimal overhauling of prior modes of instruction. I think Knight’s “5 Easy Lessons” should be required reading for any physics instructor. They would be hard pressed to walk away from even a chapter of that book without several tweaks to their lessons.

    • You’re absolutely right. The conversation about the difference between PT and T (and on how to go from PT to T) must be framed around the circumstances of the teaching environment, the goals for the lesson/course, and what the teacher is comfortable with/capable of.

      In the case of MIT, they had money and created the physical space to match the teaching. In Mazur’s case at Harvard, the physical space stayed the same, so he was limited physically in what he could do, so PI fit the bill nicely.

      Huge overhauls like Modeling can be very intimidating. I think it isn’t until a teacher has tried to eliminate PT in places here and there in their courses and are thus primed/thirsty for more, are they ready for paradigm shifts like modeling.

      It’s all about the “adjacent possible” both for students and teachers.

  9. I enjoyed this immensely. I love Dan Meyer’s take on pseudo-context, and I think your take on pseudo-teaching will only continue the movement that encourages teachers to engage deeply in pedagogy – which may be the most important thing we can do to develop professionally.

    Thank you for sharing this. This is important stuff!


  10. Great stuff! It really is all about getting the students involved in the process. Keep up the good work!

  11. Nice post. Make many of the same points in my ‘Don’t lecture me’ lecture

  12. This post made me want to talk about three kinds of teachers I have faced.

    First, I meet some teachers who have mostly been doing a lot of PT, who immediately recognize the value of T when they see it modeled for them well (perhaps at a workshop, in another classroom, or whatever). Because of that experience, those teachers go back and try something minimally new in the classroom; but then through practice, reflection, and collaboration, they gradually shift away from PT.

    Second, I meet some teachers who are doing most PT who resist any move away from PT. Perhaps they don’t see value in T; or perhaps they are threatened by the implicit offense against their current PT. These teachers often come up with excuses for why it won’t work with their students, or at their school.

    Third, I meet some teachers who keep trying new “gateway” drugs, but it never goes anywhere. I can’t pin it down, but they somehow engage in the gateway teaching in a way that doesn’t allow them to grow. Perhaps, for Peer Instruction, they don’t facilitate the discussion in a way that allows them to hear students ideas (and change their minds about what students can do). For these teachers, the gateway teaching is not enough, because there is some other barrier involved.

    I suppose the problem for this last teacher is that the gateway is not within their zone of proximal development for teaching. They need some other skills, knowledge, or experiences prior to the gateway. But this is a very different kind of problem than the second teacher.

    At the end of the day, no lesson, method, curriculum should ever leave our critical eye. The moment we stop criticizing, assessing, and refining the teaching we do is moment we become increasingly vulnerable to pseudoteaching. I think that’s true no matter who you are or how you teach. Which brings up a fourth teacher, one who has made a significant transition to non-pseudo teaching, but eventually becomes complacent and over confident in what he/she does. Sorry for the long rant!

  13. I read that New York Times article on the TEAL classes back when it came out. I remember that there were a few comments on that article from MIT students who were highly critical of the TEAL approach. That’s perhaps not surprising since, as you point out, students feel that pseudoteaching is helping them learn so they frequently like it. The converse is true, as well: students don’t always feel that “real” teaching is helping them learn since it runs counter to their expectations. This is something to keep in mind when migrating from pseudoteaching to teaching.

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  25. Frank, why don’t you download the MIT final off of their site and see how many of your students pass? I’d be surprised if even a few can pass(most high school physics teachers would have difficulty). MIT has a much higher bar for understanding physics than your students have to face. Consider the fact that your very best students probably wouldn’t even get in to MIT.

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  27. Frank, thank you so much for blogging! You put into to words what I want to say, but just couldn’t figure out how to say it well. Your blog is so helpful to me as a teacher new to modeling, but not new to PER. Thank you.

  28. The conversation about pseudo-teaching vs. real teaching is something I won’t touch on in this comment, simply because it is too complex an idea.

    This is was an interesting read, not only because I am now a graduate of MIT, but also because I absolutely loved physics… in high school. In college, was a student in the TEAL program, which (as noted above) many to most students hated, myself included. One may argue that the students still learned, I can say that I absolutely learned more and better in my high school classroom where gadgets were left behind for actual interactive learning. (For the gentleman above who suggests that highschoolers could not pass an MIT final – I stopped attending many of my freshman year classes, relying mainly on my high school notes for the required biology, physics, chemistry and calculus classes at MIT. I passed all my freshman year classes.)

  29. Frank, you almost had me sold on the TEAL thing, until I started reading the comments from the MIT students.

    • Students can be very resistant to changes in instruction. TEAL required students to come to class and participate, instead of skipping lectures. Climate setting is essential. Now that MIT has run TEAL for several years, student evaluations are back to pre-TEAL numbers. From the link “Why TEAL works” in my above post:

      “And the final fact that many are not aware of speaks the most to TEAL’s popularity; according to the end-of-term surveys that students fill out, TEAL is now just as popular as the lectures were. Just as popular, but more effective.”

      There are other universities that have been teaching physics in a similar fashion for many years. NCSU’s SCALE-UP and RIT’s Studio Physics are just two examples.

      Also see: “Minimizing resistance to inquiry-oriented science instruction: The importance of climate setting”

      Click to access resistance_to_inquiry.pdf

      “Resistance to inquiry eventually dissipates as students, parents, administrators, and peer teachers gain an understanding of the value of the various inquiry-oriented approaches employed. The importance of climate setting and atmosphere can not be over emphasized in minimizing resistance to inquiry-oriented science instruction.”

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  31. Frank,
    You mentioned NCSU’s SCALE-UP. Robert Beichner, Professor of Physics at North Carolina State University, developed SCALE-UP, which “has changed how students learn in the science classroom not only on his home campus, but at the more than 100 institutions of higher education that have adopted SCALE-UP, an approach that uses digital technology combined with innovative teaching approaches centered on hands-on activities and roundtable discussions.” Bob Beichner is one of three winners of the 2011 Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education, for pioneering digital education approaches. See the Sept. 22, 2011 announcement at View his 4.5 minute video at


    Bob Beichner said, “The one factor that makes the most difference in student success is whether they feel that someone cares how they perform.”
    In SCALE-UP at NCSU, the failure rate for university physics dropped three-fold overall, four-fold for African-Americans, and five-fold for women!

  32. Pseudo-teaching can be dangerous for students, but can be helpful in those cases you said when there is little time and much to teach. I do think we all have to try to catch ourselves doing this and then correct. I am not a teacher yet, but am working towards it right now at the University of South Alabama, and there are teachers here that sometimes pseudo-teach.

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  34. I just reread this post. I really love it.

    At CU, we have attempted to bring some of these ideas of student-centered instruction to upper-division courses for majors. Some of the faculty like the idea and love teaching the transformed courses and others, well, they prefer their way.

    I have noticed two things that are different between doing this in introductory courses and our work: (1) students can give a lot of push back early on and some never give up; some just want lecture and (2) faculty are sufficiently challenged to get out of lecture mode in these courses, while in intro courses they are not.

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  40. Yah definately not helping anyone….

    Lewin’s lectures at MIT are legendary. Many have been shown for over six years (starting in 1995) on UWTV in Seattle, reaching an audience of about four million people. He personally responded to all e-mail requests he received (about hundred per month) from UWTV viewers, who varied in age from 7 to 90. For fifteen years (starting in 1983) he was on MIT Cable TV helping freshmen with their weekly homework assignments. His programs, which were aired 24 hours per day, were also frequently watched by upper-class students. Additionally, his 35 lectures on Newtonian Mechanics, 36 lectures on Electricity and Magnetism and 23 lectures on Vibrations and Waves can also be viewed at MIT’S OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, YouTube and Academic Earth. Finally, seven special lectures for science teachers and for middle school students can be viewed on MIT World.

    These lectures are being watched by about 5000 people daily from all over the world, that’s almost two million people per year! Many teachers show them regularly in their class rooms, and Bill Gates wrote Professor Lewin that he has watched all his lectures more than once, and that he learned a lot from them. The many responses that Professor Lewin receives daily are quite wonderful and often very moving.

  41. Physics is fun

    I think some people are just too lazy to learn difficult material. Everyone thinks it’s the teacher’s fault. There’s a personal responsibility.

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  50. I implemented an adopted approach to teach Statistics to 17 years old boys enrolled on A Level Mathematics course. Specifically, we had two real life prices of Emerging Markets exchange trade fund and real life Gold prices but these two data sets were not labeled. The goal of investigation was to understand which set of data represents Emerging Markets and verify if investing in Gold preserves wealth. The students were split into groups of 4 or 5 students each and had to decide about roles each of them would perform during this activity. It is important there were 2 data sets and, therefore, students could discuss the strategy among 4 of them and implement it working in pairs, compare the results and decide about the next step. I also had few “experts” who was told that a good starting point would to calculate median, mean. model range etc and if it does not help they should consider various data representations such as whicker plots, histograms or others. As there are many data points in each data set they should consider sampling first.
    At first all learners were a bit confused and very slow to get into the task as it was very different from anything they have done before. Eventually, students understand that they have all skills and tools to complete the individual steps and the real difficulty is to describe what they have done. The Emerging Markets are associated with high profits and big losses and, therefore, the histogram was very clear visual representation of exactly this.
    I have to note that learners dis nt have sufficient computer skills to perform all activities on computer, for example, sampling was performed manually and median was calculated using pen and paper, mean was calculated using calculators while the laptop was in front of them.
    In conclusionthe students enjoyed the flass and gain the confidence and some experience hhow what they learn is used i real life.

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