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Cerne uses novel tools to teach undergraduates

 John Cerne

John Cerne finds a number of ways to make learning “click” in his classes. Photo: Douglas Levere

By DAVID J. HILL

Published April 25, 2013

“It’s the best feeling when you’re listening to students try to explain physics and they’re alive.”
John Cerne, Associate Professor
Department of Physics
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Student engagement is critical to the learning process in John Cerne's undergraduate physics courses.

For John Cerne, student engagement is critical to the learning process in his undergraduate physics courses. After all, he says, if he’s not going to actively involve students in the class, why not just film his lectures and play them for students.

But that doesn’t help them understand concepts as complex as quantum mechanics and radioactive decay. “If the lecture is just my monologue, that’s not a good use of lecture time,” says Cerne, an associate professor of physics. “They could just watch a video of me doing this.”

He finds a number of ways to make learning “click” in his classes. One of the most popular—and effective—methods employs a personal response system. When he asks a question in class, students select a response using a personal response device. If most of the students answer correctly, he knows they’ve grasped the concept and he can move on to the next part of the lecture.

If, however, the class is split on the answer, Cerne asks the question a second time, but this time he tells the students to talk over the answer with their neighbor. Typically, the students who are more convincing in their argument are the ones who answered the question correctly and can explain it to their neighbor. This, he says, is where he delights in being at the front of the class.

“In a traditional lecture, it’s quieter and the students aren’t as involved. And then you do this and they’re talking—and they’re talking about physics! It’s the best feeling when you’re listening to students try to explain physics and they’re alive,” says Cerne, who came to UB in 1999.

Cerne also isn’t the type to read a textbook chapter to his students during class. Instead, students are asked to read the chapter before the class and answer a few questions about it online. The students’ responses help him tailor his lecture to the concepts students struggled with most.

All of this helps to make students actively involved in their learning. “One of the big challenges in teaching is that you never can tell what’s getting across and what isn’t. You don’t want to wait until the exam to find out the students didn’t learn anything in Chapter 35,” he says.

And while these are some of the teaching tools Cerne employs in his current classes, he’s always open to new methods. “My theory on teaching is, if you teach the lecture the same way, after five years you’re going to peak. Another 10 years isn’t going to make a difference. You have to try new things,” he says.