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 canâ€™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 Wiemanâ€™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 Beichnerâ€™s gave at ELI06. If this research is correct, what implication does it have for your teaching? Hint: If you say, you canâ€™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