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K-State Today

May 8, 2012



Problem solver: As university's 2012-2013 Coffman Chair, Rebello seeks focus on active learning

By Communications and Marketing

Standardized tests scores may not be telling the whole story about the quality of our nation's education system, according to Kansas State University's Sanjay Rebello, associate professor of physics.

"I think we need to look under the hood, see what students are actually learning and how well they are able to apply what they are learning to solve new and novel problems," Rebello said.

As the university's 2012-2013 Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, Rebello will be implementing a universitywide dialogue on the importance of problem solving. He is the 18th faculty member appointed to the position since it was created in 1995. The chair highlights the university's commitment to excellence in undergraduate teaching and learning.

Rebello researches how students learn science. He discovered that students are best prepared for careers if they are able to develop problem-solving skills, an area not easily measured on tests. Using the results to improve his own teaching habits, he encourages the development of such skills in his teaching philosophy, known as active learning. It engages students in their education versus being passive listeners in a lecture, otherwise known as direct instruction.

"Students who have been taught through the process of active learning have shown to be better at learning in the future as opposed to direct instruction," Rebello said.

"Dr. Rebello has an outstanding reputation for teaching and instilling the importance of learning in his students," said April Mason, university provost and senior vice president. "Dr. Rebello will share his knowledge with peers across the university to enhance the learning experience at K-State and help the university reach the goal of becoming a top 50 public research university by 2025."

Although Rebello admits his students might be able to recall physics facts, figures and terminology better through direct instruction practices, his overall goal is to instill in students a lifelong love of learning so they can become more responsible for their own education. He said this is best done using active learning rather than direct instruction.

"I see myself as a facilitator of knowledge construction as opposed to a provider of knowledge," Rebello said.

By implementing active learning tactics into the classroom, Rebello engages students to become involved and take responsibility for their own education. When students seek their own knowledge, they are not only learning the material but also how to solve problems, he said.

"We cannot provide them with everything they are going to need to know," Rebello said. "They will have to keep learning as they move into their professional lives. Because life is a series of little problems, the process of learning and learning how to learn is an important skill to solve those problems. That is ultimately what their college experience should be about."

Even though Rebello's teaching style places more demands on students they respond favorably to it.

"I enjoyed being in his class so much that even if he was teaching a subject I wasn't interested in I would take it," said Jeff Murray, junior in physics, Topeka. "His course has most definitely improved not only my education, but it also helped me to realize that my dream of becoming a physicist is definitely an achievable one."

Rebello's teaching and research have earned several honors. He is a recipient of the university's Women in Engineering and Science Program Making a Difference Award in 2006 and 2009; U.S. Presidential Early CAREER Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2004; and Brown University's Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1992.