College intro science courses need overhaul, scientists say


Introductory college science courses traditionally composed of impersonal "transmission-of-information" lectures and "cookbook" lab sessions need to be completely overhauled.

That's the recommendation of Dr. Robert Beichner, professor of physics at North Carolina State University, and a team of university researchers and administrators pressing for changes in the way science is taught at the college level.

Eschewing traditional, more passive class formats, the researchers call for institutions of higher learning to implement inquiry-based, problem-solving, and active-learning strategies in introductory science courses. That means requiring students to "develop hypotheses, design and conduct experiments, collect and interpret data, and write about the results," the paper states.

Revolutionary courses utilizing these new methods have been implemented and assessed at a handful of institutions of higher learning across the United States, including NC State, and have proven to spark student interest in science, help students especially women and underrepresented minorities learn more and get better grades, and lead students to enroll in advanced science courses, the scientists say.

The views are expressed in a Policy Forum paper published in the April 23 edition of Science.

The paper calls for research universities to take the lead in changing the culture of introductory science courses, both for science majors and non-majors. Support from administrators, both in terms of vision and financial resources, is key, the paper states. Further, the paper recommends that funding agencies require that graduate students supported on training grants acquire training in teaching methods that support inquiry-based learning, just as some funding agencies require training in ethics.

Beichner and his colleagues also call for rewards for faculty who utilize new teaching methods successfully. Tenure, awards and sabbaticals could all be tied to successfully incorporating or supporting innovative teaching methods, they say.

The paper refers specifically to Beichner's SCALE-UP design or Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs as one example of inquiry-based learning that can serve as a model for reinvigorating scientific teaching and learning.

In place of traditional approaches, the SCALE-UP method combines lecture and lab components to create a new classroom paradigm in NC State physics and chemistry classes. It breaks up large classes of about 100 students into groups of nine students at a table. Each table is split into teams of three students, and each three-member group has its own laptop computer for problem solving and research.

These teams of students collectively come up with solutions to problems posed by roving instructors. Thought-provoking problems are based on real-world quandaries, forcing students to collaborate and think critically. In this classroom, students interact with physical phenomena every day.

Research has shown that students who work collaboratively in small groups and take an active role in class learn more and get better grades. Beichner has used the method in his classes since 1997, and has found that the overall failure rates are one-half of what they are in traditional classes. For women, the failure rate is one-fifth that of their peers in regular classes, while minority failure rates are reduced by a factor of four.

"The basic premise is that we are taking research-based pedagogies like active learning and cooperative groups and finding ways to apply them in larger classes," Beichner said.

The general public also benefits from SCALE-UP efforts, Beichner says. "Our scientists and engineers are learning problem-solving techniques, and picking up critical thinking and team-building skills. This means that our graduates will be better prepared to solve the problems facing all of us."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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