Five Steps About What and How to Teach in Science

September 1, 2015

Today’s post is inspired by the post How-to Remain Relevant in Higher Ed with ‘Active Learning’ by Online Learning Insights: A Place for Learning About Online Education.

“Active learning” is an ever-growing topic in higher education over which faculty have become somewhat divided. However, as undergraduate students are increasingly showing a lack of engagement and learning in the classroom, faculty find themselves with no choice but to incorporate active learning techniques into their curriculum. While some are excited about the new alternative to “traditional” teaching methods, others are skeptical and are finding it difficult to make the transition.

Some faculty are struggling with defining what role the lecture will play in the active learning process and are asking questions such as, “How much reading should I assign?” or “How many tests should I give?”

In her new book, Teaching Undergraduate Science: A Guide to Overcoming Obstacles to Student LearningLinda C. Hodges says that in order to answer the preceding questions, faculty must ask themselves an entirely different set of questions:

  1. What do we as faculty want students to come away with at the end of the course?
  2. What is most important for students to know and be able to do, not just for the next course but also when they graduate and go out into the world?
  3. What concepts, principles, and habits of mind are most critical for students’ future development?

Here we discuss five steps from Hodges’s new book that faculty can use when deciding what and how much to teach.

  1. Decide on course and curricular goals. The amount of research across faculty fields is enormous and only increasing, making deciding on a list of learning objectives for students daunting, if not downright impossible. The task becomes exponentially easier, however, by stepping back and asking, “What do I want my students to leave with and continue to utilize next year? 10 years from now?” Try to express your student learning goals as verbs to help focus your goals on what students learn rather than primarily on what you teach.
  2. Assess student achievement of your goals. After answering the first question, you must then ask, “How can students show mastery of these goals?” Determine what achieving the goal would look like; specifically, imagine how students would demonstrate it. At that point, you can refine your goals to more precisely match your desired learning outcomes. Does that mean that your goals must become mundane and easily assessed with standard tools like multiple-choice tests, numerical percentages, or single-sentence thesis statements? Not at all! But clarifying your goals for yourself helps make them clear for students as well.
  3. Design activities and assignments that meet your learning goals. Once you decide what you want students to leave you with and how you will assess their mastery of each goal, you then have the challenging and rewarding task of how to get them there. Not only do you want students to have a body of knowledge to draw on from your class, you also expect students to be able to do something with that information. You want students to be able to apply what they know and integrate ideas as clear evidence of higher-order thinking. In other words, you want student to be “deep learners.” Deep learningis making meaning from information, integrating new knowledge with prior knowledge, and seeing relationships. If students integrate all these approaches and take a deep approach to learning, they are more likely to retain what they learn.
  4. Help students connect with your choices. Just as many of you may feel uncomfortable with even the idea of changing how you have always taught, students confronted with changing the way they perceive that they learn may feel equally unsure. Students often have a simple view of learning. They expect that you will tell them exactly what they need to know, and they will parrot it back in a testing situation. Anything that seems to deviate from this pattern may upset them. Therefore, sharing your rationale for your choices, providing support and scaffolding for students in undertaking new activities, and varying methods to ensure that all students are comfortable at least some of the time are crucial coping strategies.
  5. Assess student learning outcomes to determine if your choices work. The purpose of assessment is to achieve continuous improvement. Students produce various products—exams, papers, projects, problem sets—and you analyze those products to see how well your students are achieving your specific learning goals. Assessment is not external or superficial; the point is not to set arbitrary, simple benchmarks for achievement so you can announce to some outside authority that students have met them. Rather, in assessment you are determining what students are getting and what they are not and constantly asking yourself if you can change your approach so that more students get it more often. Of course, how much a student learns ultimately depends on the student, but faculty can inspire students and can often make it possible for students to achieve more than they imagined was possible. This potentiality often attracts faculty to teaching; experiencing an “aha!” moment with your students is heady stuff indeed. So, why would you not want to know how many of your students are having those moments with your teaching style now and figure out ways to make them happen more often using more varied methods?

Being intentional about what you want students to gain and be able to do after taking your course can be a powerful and efficient guide to choices you make on content, assignments, and activities. The research on learning can guide you to more productive decision on teaching approaches and help you determine which ones will work for you to help more of your students reach your learning goals for them. If you thoughtfully assess your students’ learning outcomes, you can determine what is working, what is not working, and adjust to increase likelihood of student success. By choosing wisely, you can be not only more effective as a teacher but also more efficient in the time you spend teaching. And that’s a win-win situation.

Teaching Undergraduate Science: A Guide to Overcoming Obstacles to Student Learning, Linda C. Hodges, 248 pp, 6″ x 9″, August 2015, Paper, 978 1 62036 176 4, $29.95

For more information contact Shaqunia Clark


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