MIT physicist delivers Rall Symposium keynote about “The Future of Learning”

May 12, 2015

There’s a big disparity between what students want to learn in classrooms and what instructors want to teach, a noted professor and researcher said May 12 during the keynote for North Central College’s 18th annual Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research.

Dr. David Pritchard began teaching physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970. He has mentored Nobel Prize winners as well as North Central College President Troy D. Hammond. Later in his career he became fascinated with how people learn and how to teach more effectively, and has devoted the past 12 years to exploring Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER).

He and colleagues have published research that asked hundreds of teachers and students if they had more time in the classroom together, what would they want to teach and learn? Results showed teachers wanted to spend more time in labs and developing communication skills used to advance scientific arguments, while students wanted to spend more time covering course material and how it relates to real-world applications.

“There is a big discrepancy between what students want and what teachers want,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard conducted further research to delve deeper and better understand the disparity. He explored study habits and discovered students rarely cracked open textbooks until before exams. Those who copied homework performed very poorly compared to students who solved problems on their own—on average homework copiers’ scores are two letter grades lower on exams, he found.

“We as teachers are only teaching students to answer our examinations,” he said. “But students ultimately must learn the subject matter, and not just to get a good grade.”

In his keynote titled, “The Future of Learning for Students and/or Teachers,” Pritchard explained how he switched from teaching atomic physics and mentoring Nobel Prize winners because of technological advancements in education. His research involved Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offered at no cost by institutions like MIT, Harvard University and others worldwide. Electronic instruction has created opportunities to generate data that can then be analyzed.

“You need assessment or it’s all just hype,” he said.

Pritchard and his son, Alex, developed the interactive web-based program CyberTutor, which has been proven to be superior to written homework in raising students’ test scores. His research lab at MIT is called RELATE, for Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively. Pritchard also has developed content for, an online learning tool offered through Pearson Higher Education.

It’s up to school administrators and policy-makers to decide to what extent online learning is the future of education, Pritchard said. Meanwhile, his research shows students still prefer to interact with professors.

“Students want to be critiqued,” he said. “They want personal attention.”

Technology has the potential to revolutionize education, but core principles such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration will endure, he said.

The Rall Symposium is a forum for North Central College undergraduate students to present their independent scholarly research projects across all academic areas. The annual event showcases the collaborative, original research and scholarship of North Central College students.

Watch the full keynote below