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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why can't we teach properly?

The popular press usually screws up whenever it writes about universities and education. This time they got it right. Richard Pérez-Peña published an article in The New York Times a few weeks ago about new ways of teaching science [Colleges Reinvent Classes to Keep More Students in Science]. It was reprinted in The New York Times supplement that arrives with my Sunday copy of the The Toronto Star. The new title is Colleges Try to Enliven Science Teaching. (I don't have a link.)

The opening paragraphs set the tone ...
Hundreds of students fill the seats, but the lecture hall stays quiet enough for everyone to hear each cough and crumpling piece of paper. The instructor speaks from a podium for nearly the entire 80 minutes. Most students take notes. Some scan the Internet. A few doze.

In a nearby hall, an instructor, Catherine Uvarov, peppers students with questions and presses them to explain and expand on their answers. Every few minutes, she has them solve problems in small groups. Running up and down the aisles, she sticks a microphone in front of a startled face, looking for an answer. Students dare not nod off or show up without doing the reading.

Both are introductory chemistry classes at the University of California campus here in Davis, but they present a sharp contrast — the traditional and orderly but dull versus the experimental and engaging but noisy. Breaking from practices that many educators say have proved ineffectual, Dr. Uvarov’s class is part of an effort at a small but growing number of colleges to transform the way science is taught.
It's all about student-centered learning and the writer correctly points out that this is a proven method with lots of research behind it. We've known this for well over a decade. There's hardly any disagreement among pedagogical researchers.

So, why aren't we all teaching like this? We are, after all, scientists, and don't scientists make decisions based on evidence?

I don't know the answer. In my own department, for example, there are three faculty members whose primary research interest is undergraduate teaching and three more who are very interested (including me). The six of us have not had much influence on teaching in our undergraduate courses. We still teach our large undergraduate courses in the traditional manner that everyone knows is wrong. My colleagues at other universities have the same experience.

It could be partly due to leadership. Whenever I hear about successful changes in other universities it's almost always because the chair of the department, and the people in charge of undergraduate education, have been advocates of change. Nothing much happens when the leadership is not on board.

Why wouldn't the leaders of science departments be at the forefront of change in the way we teach? It seems like a no-brainer.

There are two obvious reasons. The first is that most leaders are simply unaware of the fact that new and better teaching methods have been developed in the past few decades. Blame that on those of us who do know about such changes. We have not been very successful at communicating these ideas to our colleagues. The second reason is a question of priorities. In research intensive departments, like mine, there is not much incentive to make changes to undergraduate teaching when one is struggling to keep a research lab functioning. Teaching is not a high priority. Changing the way we teach is going to involve a lot of extra work for all instructors and most of my colleagues don't have time for that.

Departmental chairs know this, so even if they are aware of the pedagogical issues they may not do anything about it.

Time is running out. Thanks to articles like the one in The New York Times students are becoming aware of the fact that the traditional ways of teaching are not effective, and, more importantly, professors have known about this for a long time. If today's students weren't so apathetic, we would have had a revolution on our hands years ago.

It probably won't surprise you to discover that people interested in pedagogical research have addressed the issue of impediments to change. Here's a quote from an article by Charlene D'Avanzo (D'Avanzo, 2013) that addresses the lack of response to Vision and Change in Biology education.
My intention is to reveal numerous issues that may well inhibit forward momentum toward real transformation of college-level biology teaching and learning. Some are quite fundamental, such as ongoing dependence on less reliable assessment approaches for professional-development programs and mixed success of active-learning pedagogy by broad populations of biology faculty. I also offer specific suggestions to improve and build on identified issues.

At the center of my inquiry is the faculty member. Following the definition used by the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (, I use "faculty development" to indicate programs that emphasize the individual faculty member as teacher (e.g., his or her skill in the classroom), scholar/professional (publishing, college/university service), and person (time constraints, self-confidence). Of course, faculty members work within particular departments and institutions, and these environments are clearly critical as well (Stark et al., 2002). Consequently, in addition to focusing on the individual, faculty-development programs may also consider organizational structure (such as administrators and criteria for reappointment and tenure) and instructional development (the overall curriculum, who teaches particular courses). In fact, Diamond (2002) emphasizes that the three areas of effort (individual, organizational, instructional) should complement one another in faculty-development programs. The scope of the numerous factors impacting higher education biology instruction is a realistic reminder about the complexity and challenge of the second half of the Vision and Change endeavor.
One of her points is that faculty need training in the new ways of teaching. It doesn't come naturally. Most of my colleagues, for example, have probably never seen a student-centered classroom in action and most of them wouldn't know how to teach such a class without training. I know that it's taken me many years to figure out how it's done and I'm still not sure I get it right. I also know that I couldn't even start until I attended a workshop about ten years ago where I was exposed to the method for the first time.

But there's more to the problem than just lack of leadership and lack of training. There's also the problem that researchers want to be known as researchers and not as teachers. In other words, their professional identify might be at stake if they spend too much time on teaching. (This is a good reason for hiring teaching stream faculty.) Here's an extended quotation from Brownell and Tanner (2012) (my emphasis).
Recent calls for reform, such as Vision and Change: A Call to Action, have described a vision to transform undergraduate biology education and have noted the need for faculty to promote this change toward a more iterative and evidence-based approach to teaching (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 2011). A key challenge is convincing many faculty—not just a handful of faculty scattered across the country but the majority of life sciences faculty in every institution—to change the way they teach.

Few would disagree that this is an ambitious goal. Change is difficult in any setting, but changing academic teaching appears to be especially tricky. Calls for change imply that the pedagogical approaches our own professors and mentors modeled and taught us might not be the best way to engage large numbers of diverse populations of undergraduates in our discipline. This effort potentially also involves telling faculty that what they have been doing for the past 5, 10, or even 30 yr may not the most effective approach, especially for today's students. Widespread change in undergraduate biology teaching—or in any of the sciences for that matter—has been documented to be difficult (Henderson et al., 2011). The general perception is that while there are pockets of change driven by individual faculty, there is little evidence that the majority of our faculty members are reconsidering their approach to teaching, despite dozens of formal policy documents calling for reform, hundreds of biology education research publications on the subject, and the availability and award of substantial amounts of external grant funding to stimulate change toward evidence-based teaching (Tagg, 2012).

In fact, it is somewhat perplexing that we as scientists are resistant to such change. We are well trained in how to approach problems analytically, collect data, make interpretations, form conclusions, and then revise our experimental hypotheses and protocols accordingly. If we are experts at making evidence-based decisions in our experimental laboratories, then what forces are at play that impede us from adopting equally iterative and evidence-based approaches to teaching in our classrooms? What can we—as members of a community of biologists dedicated to promoting scholarly biology teaching—do to identify and remove barriers that may be impeding widespread change in faculty approaches to teaching?

A substantial body of literature has highlighted many factors that impede faculty change, the most common of which are a lack of training, time, and incentives. However, there may be other barriers—unacknowledged and unexamined barriers—that might prove to be equally important. In particular, the tensions between a scientist's professional identity and the call for faculty pedagogical change are rarely, if ever, raised as a key impediment to widespread biology education reform. In this article, we propose that scientists’ professional identities—how they view themselves and their work in the context of their discipline and how they define their professional status—may be an invisible and underappreciated barrier to undergraduate science teaching reform, one that is not often discussed, because very few of us reflect upon our professional identity and the factors that influence it. Our primary goal in this article is to raise the following question: Will addressing training, time, and incentives be sufficient to achieve widespread pedagogical change in undergraduate biology education, or will modifying our professional identity also be necessary?

Brownwell, S.E. and Tanner, K.D. (2012) Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? CBE Life Sci Educ 11:339-346. [doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163]

D'Avanzo, C. (2013) Post-Vision and Change: Do We Know How to Change? CBE Life Sci Educ 112:373-382. [doi: 10.1187/cbe.13-01-0010]


Jonathan Badger said...

If what is described is really what the "student driven classroom" is all about -- putting students on the spot by making "startled students" answer questions into a microphone to the entire class, I can tell you I would have hated it as a student. Such methods unfairly favor natural extroverts over introverts. There has to be a better way of making teaching interactive that doesn't involve giving students stage fright.

colnago80 said...

The problem is that, at most research oriented universities, research activities are a much more important factor in issues like awarding tenure and promotions. Another problem is that, especially at the freshman/sophomore level, large lecture classes are the norm. Pretty had to institute student oriented learning in lecture classes of several hundred students. However, cutting down the size of classes would require hiring more faculty, which is pretty difficulty in the current environment.

Joe Felsenstein said...

At our university, the elementary biology class is "flipped", with a continual demand that students use clickers to answer in-class quiz questions, and frequent use of in-class small groups. The results are said to be superior, in terms of having all students involved and getiing something out of the class.

I do think that this way less material is taught. I'm not sure that is a bad thing. I think that when the course are taught traditionally, we overstuff our entry-level students with far too much memorization. Maybe for a small fraction of very well-prepared students that is good, but for most students it is just an ordeal which gives them a negative impression of biology. For most students I think it is better to have them get a real appreciation of how science is done, and how evolutionary biology studies the history of life and the processes at work.

Tom Mueller said...

Hi Jonathan, you make a valid point. Successful engagement doesn't happen by spontaneous combustion and requires more preparation on the teacher's part.

One of my heroes is Professor Craig Nelson of fame. I have cut and pasted below some remarks made by Craig on another forum:

My expertise, such as it is, is in the college level. There are several important techniques used there in science (where it has become evident from meta-analyses that lectures are much less effective than some other techniques). I have just seen this citation that may be interesting to some of you:

• Scott Kubina-Hovis. 2012. Adapting Team-Based Learning to a Seventh-Grade Life Science Classroom. [Presented as an answer to: I don’t dare teach with inquiry-base teaching methods when I have state testing breathing down my neck.] Chapter 18, p 291 on in • Sweet, M. & L. K. Michaelson, 2012. Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Group Work that Works to Generate Critical Thinking and Engagement. Stylus.

For more on team-based learning see:
• Team Based Learning Collaborative.
• Videos at &
• Michaelsen, L. K., A. B. Knight and L. D. Fink. Eds. 2004. Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus.

Craig Nelson,

Here is another great link: found here

Anonymous said...

I've been watching the Chemistry 1A lectures from UC Berkeley and I think that's a great way to teach it.
Having said that I'm a bit resentful about many of these discussions on how to teach science better. Implicit in every discussion is the idea that science is naturally boring and so students have to be bribed and tricked into liking it. No one ever had to bribe me and I think that most of the students who will be productive in science don't need to be bribed....and yes I do know that its better to have a more science literate populace

Tom Mueller said...

Hi Joe,

There are many versions of flipping a classroom.

I agree with Gary Stager, a longtime educational consultant and advocate of laptops in classrooms, who thinks Khan Academy isn’t innovative at all. "The videos and software modules, … , are just a high tech version of that most hoary of teaching techniques—lecturing and drilling.”

I agree that learning occurs best when students are engaged in an interactive fashion. That explains why I am leaning more and more on which has interactive tutorials and visuals.

The results have so far been spectacular! The classroom dynamic is changing as students arrive in class having learned material at home. As they enter I already know which bits and pieces pose difficulty (a great feature of the masteringbiology site). I quickly troubleshoot before providing a brief in-class evaluation and moving on to do the real interesting stuff.

Tom Mueller said...


I meant to say

found here

Larry Moran said...


I think that using clickers is one very good way of creating a student-centered learning environment in a large class. It has the added advantage of focusing on teaching concepts instead of facts, as you note.

I don't know of a single paper in the pedagogical literature that defends the technique of rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. All of them agree that we should be teaching basic concepts and principles. This is not the same as promoting student-centered learning since, in theory, you can have one without the other.

There was a time in the past when the "flipped" classroom was commonplace except that the students were supposed to read the textbook before class not watch a video. Today, most teachers think that students aren't capable of reading a textbook so they have to assign short videos with lot of pictures.

Larry Moran said...

The old style of teaching IS boring. In our large biochemistry classes we still expect students to memorize the names of the glycolysis enzymes and the number of ATPs produced by the complete oxidation of glucose. Keep in mind that the underlying objective is to teach students how to think (critical thinking) and it's very hard to do that if you make them sit still and listen to a sage on the stage.

Larry Moran said...

I forgot to mention that one of the impediments to change is active resistance from teachers. They are very good at finding excuses. Most of those excuses involve some variant of "the old way worked for me ..." or "I wouldn't have liked the new way when I was an undergraduate." What they forget is that they figured out how to get good grades in the old system and that's why they are now teachers. Of course they liked it. They were successful.

But did they learn how to think critically? :-)

Georgi Marinov said...

There's also the problem that researchers want to be known as researchers and not as teachers

That's the key to the problem (or at rather half of it, the other half is the financial incentives of departments and universities, which are also stacked in the direction of more research and less teaching).

However, after some thinking on the subject, it is not hard to see that in the long term it is in everyone's interest (including the faculty and the departments) to invest more of the available resources in teaching. Because if that is not done, there will come a time when they will just cease to exist (first the faculty as a class, and then the institutions too), as a result of not investing enough effort in and doing a good enough job at teaching prior to that (among a number of other factors).

Cranking out a few more papers that will be mostly likely not read by more than a couple dozen of people clearly pales in importance compared to that prospect

Tom Mueller said...

@ Larry... LOL!

I still need to contradict you on your clever retort. Reading is passive.

Engaged learning is different than passive learning.

The Hillis Textbook, Principles of Life is outstanding in this respect:

The student is given a diagnostic test to do at home. The student then proceeds with a custom-made tutorial that emphasizes what the student needs to master and de-emphasizes what the student already has mastered.

The student interacts with the tutorial. For example, the tutorial will interrupt and explain that some immediate error was typical of a certain category of misconception. In this manner error is not “fossilized”.

Meanwhile, the teacher/professor can with a simple click of a computer mouse quickly asses the state of learning and misconception in his/her class before starting class and proceed accordingly.

Much of the so-called lower-level of Bloom's Taxonomy can accordingly be accomplished by the student on their own while higher levels can be left for the classroom.

I could continue to wax eloquent, but perhaps would be wasting effort.

I had this discussion with professors in Biochemistry and Medicine at our local campus. It would appear that much of this marvelous technology is available at lower levels but has yet to reach textbooks in higher level courses.

Jonathan Badger said...

It's interesting that clickers were brought up. I see how they could be useful in allowing students to answer questions in a less confrontational way than the microphone method. But it is interesting how ideas come into fashion and fall out again. When I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, some lecture halls had buttons on the desks but they didn't do anything. I asked about them once and learned that during the 1960s they were used to allow students to answer questions but they didn't do that anymore.

Georgi Marinov said...

Some students many not like it. However, this serves a valuable and underappreciated purpose - all students in the room can learn a lot from it, even if one of them is made uncomfortable.

One learns not just by reading what is correct, knowing what is not correct and why is also essential for full understanding. You can't ever hope to come up with all misconceptions about a subject on your own and have them answered in detail by someone with more expertise than you on an individual basis - such people are in short supply and have limited time and energy. Thus overall it is better to have students answer questions in front of everyone else with the teacher/professor correcting them publicly.

Also, my experience has been that the (admittedly very few ;) ) occasions on which I have embarrassed myself publicly that way (the educational system in Bulgaria uses exactly that method) have served as the kind of kick in the behind one needs from time to time to stimulate him to invest more effort into learning.

But I do understand that different people respond differently and it can have negative effects on some students.

William Spearshake said...

My experience with University was well over three decades ago, but even then we had Profs who simply recited a script from the front of the hall, and others who engaged the students, were animated and encouraged questions and discussion.

When I took intro chem, there were two profs teaching it. Within three weeks, the one class was half empty and the other was breaking fire code due to over crowding.

I think a large part of the problem is the fact that to obtain tenure, you had to do research and teach. Being an excellent researcher is no guarantee that you are a good teacher; and you can be an excellent teacher but not have what it takes to be a good researcher.

Susannah Anderson said...

"... there are three faulty members ..."

I do hope that's a typo.

Anonymous said...

I used clickers in an introductory astronomy class and loved how my professor used them. If a large majority of the class did not answer the question correctly he would give students a second chance. He did this by asking if some student could give a hint or ask a question that would clarify something important. After the second attempt the professor would point out the correct answer and give an explanation.

Donald Forsdyke said...

While much of the above is true, I had no problem with my professors who, decades ago, used the traditional lecture approach. I recall one of the most impressive (both regarding teaching and research) telling us that he had lost his grant. I suspect that the peer-review rachet has been progressively eliminating this professorial species. His type are now thin on the ground. A new market-orientated type now dominates the academic corridors of power. Teaching problems are but a symptom of this deeper malaise (

Unknown said...

Having students spontaneously answer questions in front of everyone is not what happens in a well-run student-centered classroom. Usually the professor has students discuss a topic or question with a small group first and come up with an answer that is to be shared with the class. If done properly, students know that they will be sharing answers and have had time to prepare a response.

Robert Byers said...

I heard all this jazz about teaching methods back in the 70/80's.
It didn't then or the lack of it make a difference.
They stressed thinking critically too. I think critically but its because one found they wrong about everything.
In fact in science stuff the very essence of it is to NOT question conclusions. SCIENCE is fact. so how can a culture of 'questioning" exist a thing that is beyond questioning save by legitimate people.?
ID and YEC are today the stuff of critical thinking with a rejection of what was taught in what one thought about.
Science subjects have great interest for those kids who do have an interest.
Including those BUMPED out of these universities by a few marks by those who need a science course etc to get some profession etc etc.
I think more kids, including pound for pound, care about science and know more then anytime in our history. When was it better percentage wise?

Getting kids involved in science class is getting people involved in things they know nothing about.
It interferes with teaching.
The profs are the knowing ones and should do the teaching.

Introduce, a wee wee bit, of the creationist/evolutionist "debate" and there will be more interest and less dozing.
Also from the establishment.

Unknown said...

A general question: how is it possible to teach concepts and principles without providing examples (non-rotely, of course)? Without instantiation, what is the content of the abstractions being taught? Isn't it reasonable to teach the principles via the examples?

Larry Moran said...

It is not possible to teach concepts and principles without showing examples, and exceptions.

TheBrummell said...

Whenever this topic comes up, I am struck by the way the university culture - research success is the main, sometimes only source of career advancement - is always presented as some kind of outside force imposed on university faculty who would be happy to teach more and research less (or, at least spend less time on those time-sinks universally agreed to be awful, such as meetings).

I suspect that a small fraction of current faculty in science departments at Canadian universities obtained their PhDs and pursued an academic career primarily because they wanted to teach undergraduates and graduate students. The overwhelming majority, in contrast, did all that because they like doing research and clearly, university professors do research. The freedom of inquiry offered to a university professor is extremely appealing to someone who wishes to pursue their intellectual curiosity as far as they can. Teaching might be fun, enjoyable, rewarding, and a well-known and accepted part of the job. But it's not the main point of that career path for most people on that career path.

This attitude of teaching being secondary is not something imposed by university bureacrats and administrators upon a hapless, disorganized faculty. It comes from the life experience and goals of those faculty, who for the most part (it seems to me) are quite happy to spend as much of their time as possible on research.

Good teaching is clearly important. Developing and using new methods to improve teaching effectiveness is a great idea. But aiming the conversation at the unfeeling upper administrators who must be preventing the faculty from engaging with teaching improvement is to miss the true motivation - most profs want to spend more time in the lab, not more time in the classroom. They don't feel this way because of the career incentives, the career incentives are in place because they feel this way.

nmanning said...

While I keep hearing that there is all this research on the superiority of the flipped classroom, a recent (2013) analysis of such studies indicates that the support is not as strong as it is often portrayed and often anecdotal:

Christian said...

I think you nailed the reason that this does not happen. Universities want research grant money and they know that by actually enforcing this research is going to lag. Or they are going to have start paying serious amounts of extra cash to to have two sets of staff members 1) those that teach undergrad in ways that work and don't research and 2) those that teach post grad the old school way and research.

I personally believe the problem is what people and University boards expect of universities these days. Are they for education or research?

Christian said...

I think also the hand holding of students has to stop. Students are at University by choice, so its time to own up and stop blaming others.

Petrushka said...

I don't see this as new. I've had mostly small class, discussion based classes since ninth grade, going back to 1959. It's good when the teacher is good. But I've seen a professor shut down discussion for a whole term with aggressive challenging. This can quickly get to be personality driven.

As noted, this is a skill. I've also seen a few great lecturers.

frankly said...

The issue is how to engage students. We faculty forget that we were inherently engaged - that's how we got to be where we are. Fewer than 10% of our undergrads have the same motivation; most are there for a credential (admittance to Medical School, job, etc.) or "the college experience" (sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll plus football).

I've been using these techniques for 25+ years, and started doing some of it as an Asst. Professor. But not everyone can do this sort of thing for personality reasons if no other: you have to enjoy performing, and not all my colleagues do.

Finally, I hope that this push will not be an excuse to separate Research Faculty from Teaching Faculty because there is real value in learning something from a scholar, even if s/he isn't very engaging/entertaining.

Larry Moran said...

frank;y says,

Finally, I hope that this push will not be an excuse to separate Research Faculty from Teaching Faculty because there is real value in learning something from a scholar, even if s/he isn't very engaging/entertaining.

First, teaching faulty are scholars. Their main research interest is education (pedagogy) and they publish scholarly work in that field.

Second, almost all of the innovations and improvements in teaching undergraduates come from teaching faulty. There are very few prominent lab researchers who have contributed to the changes in the way we teach. (There are some.) If we are going to improve our teaching then we need instructors whose main interest is education.

Having said that, I agree with you that students need to be exposed to professors who are thinking actively about particular biological problems.

frankly said...

I'm not going to belittle the contributions of educational researchers (done some of that myself), but, if someone is going to teach Biochemistry, it's pretty important that s/he read widely and deeply in the primary Biochemical literature - even to the extent of being able to write a textbook on the subject!

My colleagues who are primarily "scholars of teaching" don't do that; as a result, they teach exclusively in the elementary and service courses. And the faculty who are the most highly regarded teachers at our place are among the more active biochemical researchers, too.

We would do better by evaluating teaching potential more stringently when making Assistant Professor appointments. But in this fiscal climate, I doubt we will - getting the RO1's is primary.