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Changing Science Teaching

Education: Students learn better from interactive methods, report says

by Andrea Widener
May 28, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 22

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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