November 29, 2006

Back to the Basics on Science Education

That's the title of an article by Paul D. Thacker a few days ago in InsideHigherEd.

The best approach to teaching science is to understand not education, but the scientific method, according to Carl Wieman. In a speech on this idea Friday night, he began with a hypothesis: “We should approach teaching like a scientist,” he said. The outcome will rely on data, not anecdote. “Teaching can be rigorous just like doing physics research.”


During the talk on Friday, Wieman said that traditional science instruction involves lectures, textbooks, homework and exams. Wieman said that this process simply doesn’t work. He cited a number of studies to make his point. At the University of Maryland, an instructor found that students interviewed immediately after a science lecture had only a vague understanding of what the lecture had been about. Other researchers found that students only retained a small amount of the information after watching a video on science.


While Wieman said that he does not have all the answers for restructuring how science is taught, and added that he is still trying to figure out the best way to teach, he did offer suggestions. First, reduce cognitive load in learning by slowing down the amount of information being offered, by providing visuals, and by organizing the information for the student as it is being presented. Second, address students’ beliefs about science by explaining how a lecture is worth learning and by helping the students to understand how the information connects to the world around them.

Finally, actively engage with students, so that you can connect with them personally and help them process ideas. “We have good data that the traditional does not work, but the scientific approach does work,” he said. He added that is important that members of a technologically advanced nation that is dealing with difficult topics such as global warming and genetic modification, begin to think like scientists.
The talk was given at the recent Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s centennial celebration. I think it's valuable that science faculty are engaging the needs of the students in their classes, the need to engage and, yes, entertain, students rather than just try and open up the tops of their heads and pour it all in. One of the ways to attract and retain good science students is to make it seem like fun to be a scientist, even fun to learn to be a scientist; more fun than whatever a given student's second or third choice might have been.

As we can all imagine, the comments section for the article was pretty lively, with at least one low blow:
Like Humanists

Well well well. So scientists are going to have to begin teaching like Humanists: smaller classes, real discussion, close reading, theoretical underpinnings. About time, too.

Joseph Duemer, Professor at Clarkson University
Ouch. Like no one's ever been in a boring history class? Or an overcrowded psych or poly sci? Probably no one should be too smug:
Science not the only problem

The difficulties students encounter in learning science have been well documented, and Carl Wieman has certainly been one of the heros in this story. But we should also note that we have not done so well in other very important areas as well. For example, Derek Bok in Our Underachieving Colleges refers to extensive research showing that universities and colleges have depressingly little effect on critical thinking and postformal reasoning — areas that we claim to be very good at teaching. And our lack of success in these important areas seem to be independent of major, type of institution, etc. This would seem to indicate that we all -scientist and humanist — need to pay a lot more attention to the research in teaching, as suggested by Wieman.

Lloyd Armstrong, Professor

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