A Chemist, a Physicist and a Biologist…

Sounds like the beginning of a joke but this actually was the lineup for the Janice Cutler Symposium on Undergraduate Science Education at the New York Academy of Sciences, which I attended last week. The speakers were Dr. Brian P. Coppola, a professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, Dr. Edward Redish, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and Dr. Diane Ebert-May, a professor of Biology at Michigan State University.

The main theme that ran through the three presentations was that undergraduate science education needs to be more engaging and focused on more advanced and effective methods of learning. Dr. Coppola went so far as to suggest banning PowerPoint and multiple-choice quizzes as a way to improve undergraduate education everywhere. Class size should not be an excuse for innovation: all the presenters use interactive teaching with class sizes of up to 500 students.

Each presenter took a slightly different approach to making their courses more engaging. In Dr. Coppola’s classes students teach each other by creating presentations that use video and animation to illustrate lessons in chemistry. They are assessed on their ability to identify flaws and misconceptions in the presentations. This method is based on the concept that the best way to learn is to teach and the best way to improve peer teaching is through peer review.

Dr. Reddish uses activity-based problems and makes use of interactive clickers to gauge students’ responses. The responses demonstrate that underlying principles of physics sometimes are not fully understood and answers are often influenced by intuition rather than scientific principle. Identifying and correcting these misconceptions is an important part of the teaching process. Teaching resources relevant to this approach are available on the University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group website.
Blooms Taxonomy
Dr. Ebert-May described a study that she co-authored that examined the syllabi and assessments of 75 introductory biology courses around the country in relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which is illustrated above. Although the course goals were linked to high levels of the taxonomy (e.g. analysis, evaluation), up to 80% of the assessments (i.e. exams and quizzes) were associated with the lowest levels. The authors concluded that introductory biology courses emphasize facts more than higher-order thinking (reference). In her own courses Dr. Ebert-May first designs the assessments around problem-based learning. Students work in groups to create models of their understanding in notebooks.

As a student of these teachers for the day, I wondered how average undergraduate students reacted to these teaching approaches, which are probably different from their normal experience in a large undergraduate class. Checking the infamous RateMyProfessors website, I found the comments about these award-winning teachers to be mostly positive, but there were a few like this one: “… very colorful individual, but … teaching style is a bit too intense for me … grades very harshly on homework assignments and tests – which all consist of writing/making models – no multiple choice. Don’t take this class unless you’re willing to put in a whole lot of effort for minimal results”.

It is undoubtedly the case that a professor has to be committed to take a more engaging approach and that it places more demands on students. Some students have become comfortable with not participating in class and memorizing content for multiple-choice quizzes (relatively minimal effort for a whole lot of result) and they will not like change. This was described in the article “A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education” as a “disengagement compact,” where students and teachers “place fewer demands on each other so that other interests—research for the professor and social activities for the students—can be pursued with fewer distractions. Professors pretend to teach, students pretend to learn.”

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