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Dr. James Fraser

[James Fraser photo]

James Fraser (in blue) with students

Associate Professor
Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy

As long as he can remember, James Fraser has loved physics and math. "Science was infused in my growing up. My parents were teachers, and as a family we were outdoors a lot and looked closely at nature. I can even remember catching a fish at the cottage and my sister and I dissecting it to discover what its last meal was! That kind of curiosity was encouraged."

Still, it was the magic of physics that really grabbed him. "It was a great way to make use of math. When students say that physics is hard, I think the disconnect comes when they go at it blindly saying it's just a formula. That will fail because, along with math skills, there really has to be a connection with the physical world."

No "sage on the stage"...

Fraser teaches physics at Queen's, but just spent a year on sabbatical exploring both laser physics (his area of research) and pedagogy research on how best to teach physics at a university level. "My own thoughts on teaching are evolving. We know that certain brains work better with different teaching styles. But with physics there is a strong paradigm of teaching what works for just one type of thinker and that has been a barrier to many. Usually the instructor stands as the expert at the front of the room. I want to see if we can broaden that paradigm."

If you pop into one of Fraser's classes, you will see he is doing just that. "Sometimes it might appear to be bedlam in my classroom. The students talk and argue and the instructor wanders among them. But research shows that it is very valuable to have the professor shut up for a while and let the students talk to each other. This is a move to an active learning environment where the instructor is a guide instead of the 'sage on the stage'. I feel the traditional lecture format is limited. In fact, there used to be an old joke that went, 'Traditional lecture is the most efficient way to transmit information from the notes of the instructor to the notes of the students without having to pass through the brains of either of them!' So, while traditional courses have a 20% knowledge gain, active learning doubles this, and stresses more the conceptual understanding in physics than the equation. Overall, the learning experience is richer and retention is better."

Learning is done through conversation. It's more effective to argue and discuss.

Fraser has wrestled with many pedagogical questions. What is the role of the student in the class? What is the classroom? What about gender difference in courses like physics? In all the discussions, it became obvious that it is really about community. "There has to be engagement. Students have to feel important. I use one exercise where I meet them at the door, give them a sheet of paper and ask them to find their group in the lecture hall – groups designed according to where they are living (dorm, home, apartment). I don't help them find their group so they have to figure it out. Some just get up on chairs and yell."

Engaging in active learning...

"Their next task is to learn the names of everyone in their group. So before we even start, I no longer have a bunch of individuals staring at me. I have groups who know each other's names. Then, for cohesion, they are asked to sit with these same groups during the first week."

"This works because in active learning sessions you need to trust the people you are talking to. Since these students already share the same living situations, they already have some shared dialogue. The group becomes a community and that makes it easier to go to new places they might be uncomfortable exploring. They still have support from me, the TAs and their colleagues, so, knowing they're not alone, they can start to have fun with the subject."

This year, Fraser's students are going to be expected to read the material before each class. They will do a pre-test to identify the weak areas he needs to review with them. "Online systems help. I might end up with 80 responses the night before class when they identify what they don't understand.  But a short lecture will deal with these problems quickly and then they can talk about the hard stuff in smaller groups. Learning is done through conversation. It really is more effective to argue and discuss."

Fraser still uses clickers keep an eye on how many in the class are "getting" the subject matter, and partway through the term he talks to them informally to get feedback. Besides this active learning environment, students still get to work through problems in tutorials. "However, I despise the idea of a TA doing problems on the board at the front of the room. So students come in and are put into groups of four. Four questions are thrown out and every fourth student picks one. All those doing Question #1 get together and so on."

"The expectation is not just that they figure out the problem, but that they go back to their home group and teach their solution to the others. It is very useful to be able to communicate physics effectively, and this gives the students a greater sense of responsibility. There is lots of talking and noise!" Fraser loves this interaction with the students and encourages even his graduate students to hash out ideas with him. "I love them coming to me with new results and we can puzzle things out together and come up with a solution."

His former students remember him fondly. Anneke Timan, currently an M.Sc. candidate researching physics education, says, "What makes James Fraser a great educator is not only his innovative teaching strategies and charisma in lecture (though these things do engage students and promote learning), but his genuine concern for each student that inspires them to participate in learning communities with their peers and to succeed in physics. The students in his Physics 104 class know that he has confidence in them as future physicists, that his door is always open for questions and that he is committed to helping each one of them learn."

And when Fraser needs time to figure things out by himself? He still loves the outdoors and so heads to the peace and quiet of cottage life, although rumour has it, he no longer needs to dissect the catch of the day.

Profile by Patricia Henderson