“Will this be in the test?”

Amongst the major science research journals, Science magazine has consistently been the most prominent in flying the flag for science education. I was very interested, therefore, in an Editorial by Carl Wieman in the September 4th 2009 issue of the magazine. In his piece Galvanising Science Departments, Wieman describes some fairly radical innovations in Science Education currently underway at the University of Colorado and the University of Bristish Columbia. The aim is to adopt evidence-based teaching methodologies with emphasis on the development of scientific thinking and problem-solving skills rather than fact regurgitation.

I have no direct experience of teaching in the USA, either as provider or recipient. I know, for example, that much greater emphasis is placed on the recommended course text in the USA than in the UK, but beyond that I cannot speak with any authority. It does sound like some of the reported innovations are things that have taken place here for some while, such as the addition of specific (skill-centred) learning goals to modules. A cornerstone of the strategy has been appointment of science education specialists, individuals who not only have expertise in their subject discipline, but are also au fait with educational and cognitive psychology studies, a variety of effective teaching strategies and – I note with some mirth – possess diplomatic skills!  The programme is ongoing, the University of Colorado is in the 4th year of an initial six year project and so the full impact of the developments will not be known for some while.

What really struck me, however, was the extent of the commitment at an institutional level, including provision of serious money to fund these changes. Far too many pro-active educators, motivated by genuine desire to improve the learning experience for their students actual receive flak not gratitude. In many cases this is, I believe, because their approach to pedagogy is different to the cultural norm and, as such, moved students (and staff) outside their comfort zone.

So much of education, even at University level, is about recall of a prescribed body of information. This is relatively easy – for both the teacher and the student; it is the mindset that underlies that chirping questions “will this be in the test?” Development of thinking skills demands more from everyone. If innovations that require higher skills are associated with just one module, or even just one academic, then that individual may unfairly receive criticism in feedback from the class.

I believe this is why Wieman is absolutely right when he says “an entire department must be the unit of change”. Depending upon institutional structure, it may even require a larger body – School, Faculty, College – to move together with shared commitment to the new goals. So far at Colorado, 60% of academic staff in three Science departments have embraced the new teaching approaches, impacting 80% of their students’ credit hours. Faculty are reported to enthusiastically discussing teaching as a scholarly activity – that’s surely got to be a good thing. But – it needs time and it needs money.

Wieman C (2009) Galvanising Science Departments Science 325:1181

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4 Comments

  1. And the money’s not there. Compare this idealistic approach with real world economics; http://www.cringely.com/2009/09/burn-baby-burn/

  2. Perhaps a ‘quick win’ would be to spread the word to staff developers, who are not always aware of developments in the international arena (how many of them typically read ‘Science’, or indeed other research journals)? If you communciate to them using their own channels (not ‘Science’), that evidence-based teaching methodologies are more effective than more traditional methods, they might pass this on to new lecturers coming into the system. Within a short time this could go ‘viral’, creating the necessary conditions for a genuine sea-change — without costing large sums of money. Just a thought.

    • I think the ‘problem’, such as it is, tends to lie with established staff not newcomers. There needs to be an institutional requirement to cause some long-standing lecturers to engage with different methodologies. I’ve certainly heard “I had traditional lectures and I got on fine” as a rationale for not embracing different approaches.


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