Using the Tools of Science to Inform Our Teaching

I recently listened to a provocative podcast on what’s wrong with traditional science education. (Thanks for the reference, Brian.) The speaker was someone with the credentials to be taken seriously: Carl Wieman, Nobel Laureate in Physics and 2004 U.S. Professor of the Year. But will he be? That remains to be seen, I think.

Wieman starts with a paradox: Why do scientists overwhelming leave their research methodology at the door to their lecture hall? In other words, why do scientists not design their teaching as they design their research? Why do professional researchers avoid letting research inform their teaching?

Wieman surveys research, both his own and that of other science educators, about the effectiveness of the traditional lecture mode of science education. He then compares it with a new approach based on the recent research. He looks at three measures of learning: Retention of basic facts after the lecture, ability to understand and apply concepts, and beliefs about science and problem solving. He finds that only 10% of students retain the information they were lectured on just prior to the assessment; conceptual understanding is just 30%; and beliefs about science and problem-solving actually decline after a semester in a science course.

Wieman then goes on to argue that with fairly minor modifications to the course, one can convert to a more effective, research-based pedagogy. Research-based teaching is teaching based on theory and measurement. By theory, he means knowledge of recent research on cognition. By measurement, he means developing well-defined course goals as well as valid and reliable assessment instruments. I can’t speak for other disciplines, but in economics, the quality of textbook test banks ranges from merely adequate to poor. Wieman acknowledges that developing these takes some effort, but no more than a careful researcher would spend on a research project. In his experience, retention of facts increases dramatically (to more than 90% of students); similarly, conceptual understanding and beliefs about science show improvement.

What are we to make of Wieman’s argument? It has some flaws: He emphasizes cognition over other modalities, and he doesn’t really believe in diverse learning styles in science. He observes that many science faculty simply deny the research results. [This denial is not limited to faculty in the sciences. See the similar point by Linda Hodges.] But the research is not solely his. In fact his presentation is quite similar to the one Bob Beichner’s gave at ELI06. If this research is correct, what implication does it have for your teaching? Hint: If you say, you can’t consider anything other than lecturing because we have to cover the content, Wieman has a killer response to that.

While Wieman’s examples were all from undergraduate science, I see this really as an indictment of higher education generally rather than only science education. In listening to Wieman, I found myself wondering about all the students we write off in our intro courses. At some level many, if not most of us, believe that our discipline is only for select students, those that can handle it, not for all. A reason for this belief is that only some students excel in the intro courses. But what if the problem is not the students, but our teaching methodology. What if, by adopting new

This entry was posted in Podcast Reviews, Teaching and Learning, University 2.0. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Using the Tools of Science to Inform Our Teaching

  1. failingbetter says:

    I have no issue with Wieman’s claim that lecturing is not the best way to teach deep knowledge of a subject (v. getting students to perform well on tests). I also agree with Steve that Wieman’s core claim applies beyond the sciences to undergraduate teaching broadly defined.

    One issue, of course, is what precisely to do if we’re not lecturing. I don’t think there are definitive answers to this question yet and I think the answers may be specific to discipline. (I agree with Wieman that we should apply the scientific method to our teaching but I don’t know if I’m going to be the one to do it—see below.)

    I think there are problems, however, with Wieman’s claim that we can move away from a lecture format with little change in workload. As a tenure-track faculty member at a 4/4 load institution the smartest thing for me to do in my 100 level classes is to continue to give the lectures and multiple choice exams I have already generated. Any change will require more work as I develop and implement the alternatives and probably will not generate payoffs equivalent to time that I put into my scholarly research. The most “learner-centered” course I teach simply requires more work than my lecture-oriented lower level courses. Moreover, because there aren’t any clear answers as to what alternatives to lecturing work best there is often a fair bit of tinkering required (so it’s not just the time to set up alternatives or the time it takes to teach the courses in a non-lecture format).

    One answer, of course, is to marry one’s scholarly research and teaching by researching one’s teaching. A problem with this for those of us on tenure-track is that not all of our colleagues see research on teaching as “real” scholarship. I also have to admit that I like thinking about and researching things other than teaching and want to keep doing that.

    Finally, students often react negatively to “learner-centered” teaching. I have found this to be the case even though I take class time to explain to students why I’m doing what I’m doing in my more “learner-centered” classes. This is tough to shrug off if you haven’t yet achieved the Holy Grail that is tenure.

  2. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Is Economics Like Physics?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *