Faculty Spotlight: David Wittman

Dr. David Wittman, associate professor of Physics at UC Davis, defines his use of technology in the classroom as a result of being pro-learning, not pro-technology. “Before I adopt a technology,” Wittman explains, “I need to have high confidence that it will actually improve student understanding, and that it poses little risk of becoming a distraction.”


Wittman has found four tools particularly effective:

1. Podcasting

Wittman podcasts his lectures so that students can revisit the information at their leisure. “Conscientious students really do listen to lecture a second time (at least to those parts which they found less than crystal clear the first time),” Wittman says, “and the act of audio recording provides zero distraction.”

2. Online Homework

For his introductory classes, Wittman assigns visually-rich, online homework that “encourages students to try again after each incorrect answer, restates the explanation even for a correct answer, and offers hints upon request.” The hints are particularly helpful because they guide the students toward thinking “like scientists by first asking what the answer would be in a simplified situation, and then returning to the slightly more complicated situation.”

Unfortunately, tools like these are not free, but, as Wittman argues, “any tool that encourages or forces students to spend quality time on task is worth considering, and these tools are so much better for learning than a written homework that takes a week to grade.”

For more information about the homework tool Wittman uses, MasteringAstronomy, feel free to contact him.

3. Quizzes

Wittman’s students complete online reading quizzes prior class, which Wittman argues, “motivates students to do the reading before class so that we can use class time for discussion and synthesis rather than mere transmission of facts.” While some scholars label this activity as ‘Just-In-Time Teaching,’ meaning the instructor can tweak his instruction based on quiz results, Wittman feels the quizzes are far more helpful to the students. After teaching a course a few times, Wittman explains, “the instructor can very easily predict student difficulties in advance. The primary purpose of the quizzes, then, is student preparation, so maybe it should be called Just-In-Time Reading!”

4. Think/Pair/Share

While not a strictly “technological” tool, this strategy increases engagement and is popular with the students. During the lecture, Wittman asks his students to think independently on a topic and then use voting cards to vote on an answer to a prompt. If less than 85% of the class answers the prompt correctly, Wittman asks the students to discuss the topic in pairs and then revote. If the revote is satisfactory, Wittman proceeds with the lecture; if not, the class spends more time with the concept or Wittman assigns it for homework. “This is good for keeping students attentive and engaged as well as for helping me pace the lecture,” Wittman notes.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Wittman does not use clickers to facilitate the voting: “I use voting cards so that I can see who changes their mind during discussions and who still has difficulty after a revote.”

Wittman says his students respond relatively well to these teaching strategies, though some will grumble about the quizzes and homework at first. Anonymous surveys show that there are always a few students who don’t like a particular tool, so Wittman says it’s crucial to “use a mixture of different tools; that way, each student finds something that really works for him or her.”

Learn more about Dr. Wittman’s research, or visit his YouTube Channel for summaries of astronomy and physics topics.

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