Thursday, July 23, 2015

The essence of modern science education

The July 16th (2015) issue of Nature has a few articles devoted to science education [An Education]. The introduction to these articles in the editorial section is worth quoting. It emphasizes two important points that I've been advocating.
  1. Evidence shows us that active learning (student centered learning) is superior to the old memorize-and-regurgitate system with professors giving powerpoint presentations to passive students.
  2. You must deal with student misconceptions or your efforts won't pay off.
So many people have been preaching this new way of teaching that it's truly astonishing that it's not being adopted. It's time to change. It's time to stop rewarding and praising professors who teach the old way and time to start encouraging professors to move to the new system. Nobody says it's going to be easy.

We have professors whose main job is teaching. They should be leading the way.
One of the subjects that people love to argue about, following closely behind the ‘correct’ way to raise children, is the best way to teach them. For many, personal experience and centuries of tradition make the answer self-evident: teachers and textbooks should lay out the content to be learned, students should study and drill until they have mastered that content, and tests should be given at strategic intervals to discover how well the students have done.

And yet, decades of research into the science of learning has shown that none of these techniques is particularly effective. In university-level science courses, for example, students can indeed get good marks by passively listening to their professor’s lectures and then cramming for the exams. But the resulting knowledge tends to fade very quickly, and may do nothing to displace misconceptions that students brought with them.

Consider the common (and wrong) idea that Earth is cold in the winter because it is further from the Sun. The standard, lecture-based approach amounts to hoping that this idea can be displaced simply by getting students to memorize the correct answer, which is that seasons result from the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation. Yet hundreds of empirical studies have shown that students will understand and retain such facts much better when they actively grapple with challenges to their ideas — say, by asking them to explain why the northern and southern hemispheres experience opposing seasons at the same time. Even if they initially come up with a wrong answer, to get there they will have had to think through what factors are important. So when they finally do hear the correct explanation, they have already built a mental scaffold that will give the answer meaning.

In this issue, prepared in collaboration with Scientific American, Nature is taking a close look at the many ways in which educators around the world are trying to implement such ‘active learning’ methods (see The potential pay-off is large — whether it is measured by the increased number of promising students who finish their degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines instead of being driven out by the sheer boredom of rote memorization, or by the non-STEM students who get first-hand experience in enquiry, experimentation and reasoning on the basis of evidence.

Implementing such changes will not be easy — and many academics may question whether they are even necessary. Lecture-based education has been successful for hundreds of years, after all, and — almost by definition — today’s university instructors are the people who thrived on it.

But change is essential. The standard system also threw away far too many students who did not thrive. In an era when more of us now work with our heads, rather than our hands, the world can no longer afford to support poor learning systems that allow too few people to achieve their goals.
The old system is also wasteful because it graduates students who can't think critically and don't understand basic concepts.


  1. We need ways to help professors change how they teach. Lecturing professors doesn't work any better than lecturing students.

    1. I agree. Esp when faced with the prospect of a 200+ student course, I struggle to understand how I can do anything but lecture in a conventional sense.
      I know most students do not benefit, but I tell myself that I am really speaking to the few beings, dispersed amongst the crowd, that are personally motivated toward being interested... and the few that are not especially interested, but might become so because of something they heard in my class.
      I am prepared to admit this might not be enough, but it is difficult to find a different way. Teaching is not my only job. I must run a research lab and serve on many busy committees as well.. so it is a struggle.

    2. There are many ways of introducing student-centered learning into large courses. The options range from clickers to tutorials depending on the resources you have available.

    3. Besides what Larry wrote, you can do pair share and or have students work in groups of three or four. The techniques are out there but will only get you partially there. You need to think beyond techniques but also how you organize your class sessions and the course itself. Are you going to tell students about DNA or are you going to guide them to use their understanding of chemistry & available data to understand the formation of a DNA double helix in an aqueous environment is significantly more than hydrogen bonds between base pairs? What assignments will you have to reinforce that understanding? Is your course about knowledge being thrown at students & them spitting it back at you or is about teaching students how to construct a framework for understanding an aspect of the world and how to use knowledge?

  2. My question is: How much rote memorization is there in MSEH subjects (I don't accept the STEM acronym - Technology and Engineering are the same thing IMHO and the acronym is missing the 4th pillar on which you build technological advances: Hacking. MSEH puts them into their logical order as well)? I spent a few semesters studying physics before switching to paleontology and when I did the latter I took mathematical courses for my electives. And the only things I think I've learned by rote were the names of the geological timescale (and I regularly look up stages) and the names of a few clades. My math courses would generally have the professor motivating proofs, which they'd sketch out. There'd be groups of ~4 students and homework would consist of working out the complete proof within that group. Then there's be sessions where you'd explain the proof to a TA. When I was cramming for my final exam, I enlisted the help of my brother, who hadn't had courses in that particular area of maths, but is a physicist. And that basically consisted of going through the lecture notes and him saying: How do you get from Eq. 13.7 to Eq. 13.8 and me showing him how that worked. That's how you learn maths - the lectures give you the outlines of proofs, you then do the full proofs and in doing so get an idea of how you would go a bout proving other statements (I have to add that I asked the professor to do the exam on things that are relevant in evolution and he said he didn't know which ones were and that anything in his lectures was fair game. Apart from the basics that I guess most exams would have - definition of RVs,LLN and CLT - I got asked questions about the Fisher-Wright process and the Galton-Watson process and the Kolmogorov backwards equation. I asked him about that and he claims I just got lucky...)
    Theoretical physics classes were very much like that, while experimental physics classes generally centered on experiments that were either too large, or too expensive to have the 20 copies of that would take place in the lab exercises. And in all my Geology courses the emphasis was mainly a bit of prep for the field trips, which was were most of the real learning happened, with the exception of the seminars. Mineralogy classes tended to start with people getting minerals. Petrology classes started with people getting rocks. Though I guess I did learn a couple of formulas for some minerals at some point
    But if I had to divide up what I learned into things that I just rote learned vs. things that are just brute facts but weren't rote learned (for instance I know some quite specific things about the geology of an area in southern France where I did my mapping thesis and that of the lake from which my Diploma thesis fossils came from. But I never had to learn them by rote - more a matter of Osmosis from having to work with the literature and being there and seeing how that plays out), vs. theory (i.e. where you have some basic model of how things work and then can work out a specific model for a particular situation), vs. methods, then I would rank things as:
    1. Methods
    2. Theory
    3. Brute facts (other)
    4. rote learning

    And 4 is a distant 4th place. I didn't learn the Bouma sequence by looking at my sedimentology lecture notes, I learned it from going on field trips where I saw that structure the first time and got told it was the Bouma sequence, to when I saw it for the 4th time or so and just by looking at the rocks thought: Ah, Turbidites.

    Who teaches science by rote?

    1. Did you ever take organic chemistry?

    2. Nope. Chemistry in general wasn't on my curriculum. How much rote learning do you think is necessary there?

  3. I've always given the professors the answers they wanted to hear even though I didn't believe in them. Nothing has changed today even though people like Larry claim they put emphasis on critical thinking. I once challenged one of the professors on evolution. He kindly offered other students a chance to answer my challenge. Some answers were typical or similar to the ones we get on this blog. After the class the professor advised me to be careful about challenges like that because other professors may not be as tolerant as he was. Today, I'm pretty positive the situation is the same. Sceptics keep it to themselves and make their professors happy by feeding them what they like.

    1. It's not skepticism when a layman / undergrad bucks the scientific consensus because of a video they saw of youtube. We call that being in a state of denial.

    2. Just to clarify my point, when you're a layman and you think you know better than the experts in their fields who have devoted their lives to studying these things then there is a good chance that you've succumbed to the Dunning-Kruger effect and you need to seriously think about whether there is anything that might be introducing bias into your thinking.

    3. Septic,

      If your attention span in class was like what you show here, then no surprise that your continue being "sceptical" about evolution. I gave you the benefit of the doubt in the previous thread, and you didn't care to try and answer. That shows that it's not your professors who had the problem. It's all you.

      It's also very telling that you would succumb to the atrocious bullshit about "science" in the bible, yet you can't make the effort to understand a single answer given to you regarding evolution. Of course, science takes much more effort than the wishful thinking involved in reading such crap as "he stretched the heavens like a tent" to mean "the universe is expanding," so I should not be surprised that you rather deny the science. Easier than trying and understanding it.

      You're not sceptical, you're a lazy idiot.

    4. Aceofspades

      I'm not a layman and I wasn't then. I know better because neither now, nor ever the responses have been: "look at the scientific facts, experimental or laboratory evidence starting with the simplest of cells to more complex, “look at the consensus on mechanism". Instead, just insults: "you don't understand evolution". Or "you don't believe in evolution? You must be stupid".
      This is how the so-called scientific consensus worked then and works now. This is how The Science Bullies operate. If there is no evidence, use insults and name calling to intimidate further challenges. I'm so disgusted that this has been allowed to happen for such a long time. Thankfully, times are changing due to internet and people now have access to information on both sides of the spectrum. That's why the insults and name calling by The Science Bullies has increased towards people like me. The so-called scientists are losing ground and their mind. Just look above. What a pity.

    5. Septic,

      Of course you're a layman at best. The easy way in which you accept that "science in the bible" bullshit betrays you (and ridicules you).

      Again, I gave you the benefit of the doubt and I left you some questions that should help you start your way into understanding, rather than stupidly assuming, how we figure out evolutionary stuff. But you'll never follow up because you don't give a damn. That you would rather take offence shows that you're a lazy, and dishonest, idiot. You have nobody but yourself to blame for this conclusion. You won't accept the responsibility, but it's all yours.

  4. REFORM THE FILTERS "New" is "good" does not always work. And what works for some students will not work for others. As a student I had excellent teachers who both set out the ABC of their subjects and helped me think critically. There are two filters to consider. One is the filter that lets through students who are not up to scratch. The other is the filter that lets through professors who are not up to scratch. The latter is probably the most important.

    The first question an appointment committee asks: Is he/she fundable by the granting agencies? In other words, is he/she a good marketer, not is he/she an outstanding, original, thinker, who will expand our understanding of the world? People who get through this filter know that it is akin to professional suicide to spend time preparing lectures rather than on the next grant application. The push for reform of the teaching approach is nothing less than an attempt to paper-over this major defect.

    The answer is to reform the research funding system, a task that the now defunct Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding (CARRF) approached in the 1990s, but failed to complete Peer Review .

    1. You aren't telling us anything that hasn't been thoroughly discussed in the pedagogical literature. Nobody expects all good researchers to spend an inordinate amount of time on undergraduate lectures. The reforms should be led by a small group of dedicated teachers who really care.

      But mostly by teaching professors and lecturers.

      Other lecturers should copy their techniques or be mentored by these leaders.

  5. The old system is also wasteful because it graduates students who can't think critically and don't understand basic concepts.

    Agreed. But I will insist that not every person can be a university student. University is not for everybody. Either because it's something they would not enjoy, or because they're not equipped for it. Filters should be in place. Students at this stage are supposed to be adults.