How can we keep students engaged in science?

Making ScientistsRecently, we struck up a conversation with a Northwestern undergraduate.  This young woman had been a top student in high school and had excelled in science.

After a quarter of college science courses, though, she was discouraged.  She felt lost in a sea of hundreds of other students in class, overwhelmed by the sheer number of facts she had to memorize, and depressed by the intense competition among her classmates. She foundered and watched her grades sink. Along with them went her innate enthusiasm for the area of study she had chosen.  “I used to love science,” she told us.  “Now, here, I can’t love science anymore.”

In reality she was introduced not to science but rather to a poor facsimile under the same name: a science course in which no scientific thinking or genuine science experience was provided. The encouraging news is that increasing numbers of teachers and institutions are attempting to reverse course.

We have run a decade-long learning program in the sciences, engineering, and math that engages students in authentic scientific practices – and which has produced impressive academic and experiential outcomes for its students.

Through a study of that program (the Gateway Science Workshop program), we’ve drawn on thousands of student voices and the experiences of many dozens of faculty to identify 6 principles of effective teaching for a more authentic science experience.

1.     Learning deeply. Deep learning is what scientists engage in throughout their careers, but it is often absent in large lecture science courses. Deep learning happens when faculty go beyond teaching content, when they include opportunities for students to actively work with the course content, rather than simply hearing or reading about it.

2.     Engaging problems. Effective teachers invite students to engage with problems in the same way scientists do: by offering problems that help elucidate key concepts, by requiring application of more than one concept for solution, and by encouraging students to think beyond the familiar problem setting and transfer knowledge to different settings.

3.   Connecting peers. While competition can drive discovery in authentic science, collaboration is also critical. Faculty can discourage unhealthy competition by helping students collaborate with their peers. Just tossing students together, though, is not enough: Groups need clear goals and ground rules to ensure that all participate and view the experience as meaningful and connected to course content.

4.     Mentoring learning. Faculty can mentor students in office hours, but students often do not come. Some faculty hold group office hours, helping students feel less intimidated and ensuring more students have a chance to engage with the professor. Peer mentors can be especially useful because – somewhat ironically – they don’t have the level of expertise of the professor.

5.     Creating community. Faculty can promote inclusion by inviting students to participate with them in science, for instance by holding occasional “science tables” at the cafeteria, by engaging student science groups, particularly those including underrepresented students, by talking about their own research interests, and by helping students learn more about science careers.

6.     Doing research. Effective teachers help students discover a passion for research, for instance by building in assignments which require research skills, by bringing real-life research experiences into lecture, and by talking frankly about the challenges and disappointments of research.

These practices don’t require a major reworking of the curriculum, but they do require faculty to radically rethink deeply held assumptions about teaching science in higher education. They are relatively simple practices that promote meaningful learning and – perhaps more important – create a welcoming and authentic science environment out of an uninviting and unscientific one, an environment in which students can learn to “love science” once again.

Greg Light is the Director of the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, and Marina Micari directs the undergraduate programs, including GSW. Their book, Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, was published by Harvard University Press in 2013.

About Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching

This is the official blog for the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching at Northwestern University.
This entry was posted in assessment, inclusive classroom, Learning, Learning-focused, peer learning, peer mentoring, Searle Programs, Searle Research, Teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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