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Teaching Science: What Research Tells Us

Photo courtesy of Robyn Wright Dunbar.
This webpage is based on a presentation by Robyn Wright Dunbar, of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University, given at the Preparing for an Academic Career Workshop series.

"A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education," from "a college is an institution that exists to provide instruction" to "a college is an institution that exists to produce learning" (Barr & Tagg, 1995). In this paradigm, "What professors do in their classes matters far less than what they ask students to do" (Halpern and Hakel, 2003).

According to research on learning,

  1. Students build on prior knowledge.
  2. Students need effective organizing schemes.
  3. Students need to be actively participating in the learning process.
  4. Students need frequent practice and timely and constructive feedback.
  5. Multiple representations enhance learning for all learners.
  6. An understanding of the way you learn - metacognition - can "improve" the process.
Unfortunately, when we become teachers we usually imitate our teachers, who were imitating their teachers - who didn't necessarily know this. So, instead of imitating exemplary teaching practices, we may be imitating educational practices that are not very effective.

Let's examine some of these findings more closely. How do students construct knowledge?


1&2. They build on prior knowledge, using organizing schemes.

In the book Fish is Fish, by Leo Lionni (1970), a tadpole and fish are friends. When the tadpole becomes a frog, it leaves the pond and travels for a while. Eventually, the frog returns to the pond and describes what he's seen to the fish: birds, cows, and people. The fish, having lived all of its life in the pond, imagines each creature in the shape of a fish—building on its prior knowledge.


Photo courtesy of Robyn Wright Dunbar.

3. They need to be actively participating in the learning process.

Teaching science as we do science involves Inquiry Based Learning! In this cyclical process, students' engagement with a question or topic leads to intellectual exploration. This eventually leads to an explanation of the feature or process in question, which further leads to applications of their ideas to that and other questions. Moreover, the process provides positive feedback; as students' understanding grows, so does their engagement in the learning process.

This maps onto what Ken Bain (CHE, April 9, 2004 "What Makes Great Teachers Great?") calls the "Natural Critical Learning Environment." "Natural" because what matters most is for students to tackle questions and tasks that they naturally find of interest, make decisions, defend their choices, etc. "Critical" because by thinking critically, students learn to reason from evidence and to examine the quality of their reasoning, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions.


In the interest of time we may skip the "Explore" stage in teaching - but this undermines inquiry! In short-circuiting the learning process, we neglect having our students practice doing what we do.


Even worse, we may focus on "Explain-Apply" at the expense of engagement and exploration. But remember, students need to be actively engaged in the learning process in order to learn.


Diagram taken from S. Ambrose, NCS Presentation, July 2002; provided by Robyn Wright Dunbar

4. Students need frequent practice and timely feedback.

Consider the diagram of the Basic Information-Processing Model of Human Cognition (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968). Information is first perceived through our senses. If it is not given any attention, it is forgotten. If we pay attention to what our senses are telling us, the information goes into our working memory. From here, it may still be forgotten, if we pay it no further attention. If, however, we maintain that memory via rehearsal, it will undergo elaborative encoding and be stored in long-term memory. Information in our long-term memory can be either forgotten or retrieved. As instructors, we want to support the process of getting information from sensory perception into long-term memory. We will be most effective at that if we draw attention to "important" perceptions, and provide opportunities for rehearsal.


5. Multiple representations enhance learning for all learners, and
6. An understanding of the way you learn - metacognition - can "improve" the process.

Students in your classroom will inevitably have a variety of different learning styles. To most effectively "reach" all of your students, you would do well to present information in multiple different ways. In fact, even for students with a preferred learning style, seeing the information presented in a different way reinforces it.

Learning Styles

How do students prefer to process information?

60% prefer actively, through physical activity or discussion;
40% prefer reflectively, through introspection.

What type of information do students preferentially perceive?

65% sensory: sights, sounds, physical sensations, data;
35% intuitive: memories, ideas, models, abstract.

Through which modality is sensory information most effectively perceived?

80% visual: pictures, diagrams, graphs, demonstrations, field trips;
20% verbal: sounds, written and spoken words, formulas.

How do students progress toward understanding?

60% sequentially: in a logical progression of small incremental steps;
40% globally: in large jumps, holistically.


Recapitulation

  1. Students build on prior knowledge.
  2. Students need effective organizing schemes.
  3. Students need to be actively participating in the learning process.
  4. Students need frequent practice and timely and constructive feedback.
  5. Multiple representations enhance learning for all learners.
  6. An understanding of the way you learn - metacognition - can "improve" the process.


References

  1. Ambrose, S., What do we know about how students learn? Presentation to New Century Scholars Engineering Faculty Workshop, Stanford University, July, 2002.
  2. Barr, R.D. and Tagg, J., From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education, (1995) Change, Nov./Dec., p. 13-25.
  3. Felder, Richard M. Reaching the Second Tier - Teaching and Learning Styles in College Science Education (1993) Journal of College Science Teaching, v. 23, p. 286-290.
  4. Halpern, D.F. and Hakel, M.D., Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond (2003) Change, July/Aug., p.36-41.
  5. National Research Council, Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook (1997), National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 88p.

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