Home»Teaching»The death of the science lecture – at least in some places

Is active learning the result of active teaching?

As I write this, it’s the day after Christmas and my digital portfolio/site is still under construction. I should be converting some previously-written piece and posting it here: instead, I’m looking at an article in today’s New York Times on teaching.

(Actually, it’s in the online Times, so I guess I should be saying the article is in this hour’s New York Times.)

(Library of Congress - lecture 1961 at what was to become the University of Missouri-St. Louis.)
(Library of Congress – lecture 1961 at what was to become the University of Missouri-St. Louis.)

It’s about how some schools are experimenting with alternatives to introductory science lectures. At U.C.-Davis, rather than an 80 minute lecture, Professor Catherine Uvarov teaches an entry-level chemistry course by continually asking students to explain concepts and having them solve problems in small groups. As the article notes, “Multiple studies have shown that students fare better with a more active approach to learning.”

The benefit of teaching sciences this way has been documented.

The University of Colorado, a national leader in the overhaul of teaching science, tested thousands of students over several years, before and after they each took an introductory physics class, and reported in 2008 that students in transformed classes had improved their scores by about 50 percent more than those in traditional classes.

At the University of North Carolina, researchers reported recently that an overhaul of introductory biology classes had increased student performance over all and yielded a particularly beneficial effect for black students and those whose parents did not go to college.

The question, of course, is why don’t more schools teach this way or, for that matter, why aren’t all of the science classes at U.C.-Davis taught this way? (They’re not.) The sad fact is that, as another professor says, “Teaching isn’t a very high priority,” referring to the greater emphasis placed on research and winning grants. The latter will get you promoted, being an excellent teacher won’t.

Universities – like any large organization – are fundamentally conservative places. As long as prospective donors are bedazzled by the sort of accomplishments that come from research and publication, the universities have a strong incentive for continuing to emphasize these things.

(Look, how many institutions have you heard brag that “after two years our students remember more than 10 percent of what they’ve heard in lecture”?)

It’s not just the sciences and, on the other hand, it’s not some grand conspiracy to limit learning to those students who can absorb knowledge from lectures: it’s simply that professors are left to their own devices when it comes to what they do inside their classrooms. I suspect that most teach the way they were taught, a point that I’ve made elsewhere in this portfolio. That’s how I did it for many years, but I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the results as those years wore on.

That studies are being done, like those above, indicate that a change is underway. It’s certainly easier to find help in teaching better than it was five or ten years ago, but the change is hardly a tidal wave yet.

One school is mounting a challenge on the traditional model, I learned in the days before reading the Times article. It’s the Minerva School, launched this year with 28 students, paying $10,000 in tuition a year, and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur as president. The PBS News Hour described its program. (The statistic above about students retaining only ten percent of what they learn from a lecture comes from the PBS news segment.)

It will be some time before Minerva begins to have a widespread impact, but for now parents and prospective students might do better to ask about what sort of teaching techniques professors use when they visit a college rather than inquire about, say, the food in the cafeteria.



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