20 July 2012

What's next for scientific teaching?

I've been in Baton Rouge all this week at a biology teaching workshop. It’s nice once in a while to think about nothing else but how to improve teaching.

These workshops are based on scientific teaching workshops that were developed at the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching. Several are held around the country,and they are all apparently closely built on each other. I get the impression that they are meant to follow much the same structure.

I’ve been surprised by the absence of some concepts.

A big chunk of the material about teaching focuses on the constructivist theory of education. This says that students build new knowledge on their existing knowledge. The material emphasizes over and over again that students can have misconceptions in their existing knowledge that can impede their learning new knowledge. There are a lot of examples from physics. People intuitively think that heavier objects fall faster than light ones, and this makes it very difficult to learn that once you remove air resistance, they all fall at the same rate. When you ask students to solve problems, they tend to fall back on their intuitive assumptions.

The coursework discusses many tips for exposing those unstated misconceptions that students might have. But the advice kind of stops there. The presumption is that students want to be rid of these misconceptions.

The next step is to talk about motivated reasoning (which Chris Mooney has been writing about for a few years, culminating in The Republican Brain). Students will not necessarily view their misconceptions as misconceptions. They won’t automatically change when confronted with a contradiction. They will rationalize and fight like hell to keep that existing belief.

In other words, what do you do with a student who is not motivated to learn? This is not just an issue of motivated reasoning, but in general. Can you make people care? I’m not sure that I always can motivate someone by the time they’re in university.

There was a lot of useful material on how students study, and what is effective at studying. One of the surprises to me was how utterly ineffective the most common study tool is: re-reading notes. I would have liked to seen some ideas on how to find the “one trial learning” situations. I am convinced some stories do this. I think there are some questions that do this. “An acorn is tiny. An oak is big. Where does all the mass come from?” Very few students say, “The air,” which is correct. But I only had to hear that question once to remember it. Why is that question so sticky that I never needed to study it?

Another “I wish they’d gone further” moment was in a session on diversity. In a workshop exercise, the concept of stereotype threat came up. This was good, as some people hadn't heard about it. But there was no mention of recent papers showing effective techniques to combat stereotype threat (writing short essays about what you value about your background and culture). Heck, there is an entire website devoted to the topic.

Finally, I was surprised again when one of the lead instructors started talking about the importance of diversity because... according to the President, we need a million more scientists. I said, “Did you see the front page story on The Washington Post a week or so ago? You’re really telling me with a straight face that there’s a scientific workforce shortage?”

This was the diversity section, so this was a tangent, and we weren’t able to pursue it very long. But I wasn’t crazy about the two defenses to the “moar science” claim. The first was, “Maybe there are no jobs now because we didn’t train enough scientists, so all those jobs went overseas because of the shortage.” I don’t think the patterns of employment for scientists bear that out at all. Competition for science positions have been tough for decades now.

The second response was, “But it’s still good to be trained in science!” Yes, people with science doctorates have low unemployment. But they could probably do the jobs they’re now doing without having spent the better part of a decade, if not more than a decade, getting a doctorate, post-doctoral work, etc., to be trained as a working scientist - which is what they set out to do in the first place.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that your point about the workforce issues was so poorly handled. One huge issue is that current training of PhDs emphasizes only the academic career track, and the shortage of faculty positions at research universities is undeniable. Graduate studies should also prepare students for alternative career tracks that still require deep science expertise; Professional Science Masters programs aim to fill that niche. A second point is that these Summer Institute workshops emphasize intro biology courses. To me, it's about educating a scientifically literate workforce and citizenry - producing graduates who have the literacy and skills for the technology jobs that haven't yet been created, prepared to deal intelligently and rationally with looming challenges such as global warming, feeding the growing world population, improving our health, and obtaining energy, while maintaining a thriving environment. We don't need a million clones of professors - we need billions of people who can evaluate scientific evidence and understand the power and limits of science. We can't have enough people who can test and evaluate alternative hypotheses, of all genders, colors, abilities and ethnic backgrounds.

Anonymous said...

My response to your objection to "moar" science is that you are absolutely correct that we don't need a million more PhDs trained only to become faculty at a research university. But I do think we need to ramp up the numbers of graduates with deep science expertise who can apply them in creative ways for the science and technology-dependent jobs for today and for the foreseeable future. The Professional Science Masters programs are designed for just such a purpose.
At a more basic level (the primary emphasis of the Summer Institutes is introductory bioscience courses), we must equip as many citizens and workers as we can with science literacy and reasoning skills. Science will help us meet the looming challenges of global warming, feeding a growing population, increasing our health, and meeting energy needs, without destroying our planet. Let's teach as many people as we can, of all genders, colors, ethnic backgrounds and abilities, to think deeply about alternative hypotheses and dispassionately evaluate evidence.