Changing Science Teaching | May 28, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 22 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 22 | p. 11 | News of The Week
Issue Date: May 28, 2012

Changing Science Teaching

Education: Students learn better from interactive methods, report says
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: NRC, undergraduate science education, fundamental science concepts
Knowledge Gaps

The National Research Council report recommends science education research on several topics:

◾ Exploring similarities and differences in learning among student populations

◾ Examining the long-term acquisition and retention of important science concepts

◾ Creating tests that can better measure what students know

◾ Studying learning of interdisciplinary science concepts

Faculty members need to adopt engaging teaching practices to improve students’ ability to understand science, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). Otherwise, the report says, undergraduates will continue to leave classes confused about the fundamental science concepts they have been taught.

“Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering” reinforces the value of moving from traditional lectures to new ways of teaching to improve how students learn.

The NRC report released last week says faculty who make their lectures interactive, have students work in groups, and use real-world examples are more successful at teaching key scientific concepts. The report points out areas where education research is needed, including long-term retention of knowledge and teaching of interdisciplinary concepts.

The recommended teaching strategies have been known for a decade or more, but the problem has been convincing faculty to adopt them, explains Melanie M. Cooper, a Clemson University chemistry professor who helped write the NRC report. The report discusses ways for faculty to change how they teach while still working inside science departments that don’t necessarily encourage change. Unfortunately, “the evidence suggests that there isn’t widespread change,” Cooper says.

The NRC report examined discipline-based education research, which is how students learn the fundamental concepts in a particular scientific discipline. The report brings together education research from several sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, geosciences, astronomy, and engineering—to identify common problems and propose solutions.

For example, students across disciplines have trouble understanding graphs, models, or other important depictions of science. That’s a particular problem in chemistry education, Cooper says, because “we can only speak in symbols, really.”

The NRC report and other recent studies might prompt change, says Tobin L. Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “I’m optimistic that the stars are aligning and we will actually see some progress in this area.”

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Cathleen Clark (May 30, 2012 9:05 AM)
Franklin & Marshall College has been doing research and training for years on POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning). I've been to a number of POGIL workshops and use the method with both my high school and community college students, and it seems to work very well. Students are required to work in small groups and analyze models through guided questions, while I act more as a coach than the "purveyor of knowledge". A few students complain that it's "too hard" and I should "just tell them what they need to know," but after I convince them to give it a try, the complaints stop. They retain the information much better and have a deeper understanding of the concepts than when I give direct instruction. I'm a firm believer in the power of inquiry learning.
Oliver Axtell (May 30, 2012 3:22 PM)
I believe that organic chemistry, rather than inorganic, should be taught to beginners. I have tried tis for over 25 years, and it seems to impart the basic principles of chemistry faster than the traditional approach. A thought: it would allow POGIL to be directed toward everyday substances, like high polymers, rather than laboratory reagants, like silver nitrate.

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