Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Teaching Large Classes > Mark Leckie's Approach > Make Science Accessible

Make Science Accessible

These pages were developed by R. Mark Leckie, University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

stuffed animals in a suitcase

Relate Material to Students' Experiences

My own experience teaching large introductory geoscience courses (e.g., introductory oceanography or introductory geology) suggests that students become engaged in the material if they feel like they can grasp the major concepts and see the relevance of the material to their own lives. If they get turned on to science or become concerned about a particular issue, then maybe they'll read that scientific story in the newspaper or news magazine, listen to a report on the radio dealing with science, or choose to watch a public television science documentary rather than a reality show.

One way to accomplish this goal is to build on what students already know. I like to make connections with familiar things, experiences, or knowledge that the students already have. For example, the seasons or weather patterns, the beach, rivers, mountains, or the desert are familiar concepts at some level. Similarly, scientific units or terms can be made more accessible by comparison with familiar concepts: 1 m/sec is close to 2 miles per hour; density is a measure of how much "stuff" is packed into a space, like the amount of clothes (or books, or ...) in a suitcase.

Provide Structures for Student Success

Providing your students with ample opportunities to succeed in science is another way to reinforce the idea that science can be accessible to them. After all, many if not most of the students in your large enrollment geoscience courses are not geoscience majors. Nonetheless, it is possible to strike a balance between challenging assignments and tasks and support for student learning.

Below are some strategies that I've employed to engage students while demonstrating that they can be successful in a science class:

  1. Turn exams into learning opportunities via two-stage "pyramid" exams (see below)
  2. Give students credit for participating in active learning exercises during class. Students can earn points both for participation and for correct answers, so that even if they get the answers wrong they earn points for trying.
  3. Set the grading policy to be forgiving: drop the lowest exam score of the term, for example. This won't change the grade of a student who just doesn't do the work, but will make students feel that you are "on their side," and will also save you the trouble of having to administer make-up exams for students who have legitimate reasons for missing one.

Students discuss exam questions with each other during the second, "group" portion of a two-stage exam, using their books and notes. The classroom erupts in conversation. It's fun to watch and listen.

Two-stage ("Pyramid") Exams

This is a two-stage style of exam that fosters active learning and critical thinking during an exam setting. Students take a multiple-choice exam twice: first on their own and the second time using resources and discussing answers with their peers. The experience stimulates excitement. It provides an opportunity to practice life skills – working in groups, listening to others' opinions, considering different perspectives or approaches to problem solving – and it encourages critical thinking and analysis. It is a win-win for your students: they will do better on their exams and the process will reinforce what they learned in the course. Another benefit of pyramid exams is that students feel successful in a science class!

Richard Yuretich and I first implemented this style of exam in our 300-student introductory oceanography course at UMass-Amherst in 1997 and have found the pyramid exam to be very effective in such a large enrollment class (Yuretich et al., 2001). To provide ample time to take the exam twice, we write shorter exams (~25-30 multiple choice questions). I also subdivide the course into shorter segments so that each exam covers less material; I give five exams during the semester, including the final exam, which is cumulative.


Benefits of the Two-Stage Exam


Yuretich, R., 2003. Encouraging critical thinking. Journal of College Science Teaching, 33(3):40-46.

Yuretich, R., Khan, S.A., Leckie, R.M., and Clement, J.J., 2001. Active-learning methods improve student performance and scientific interest in a large introductory oceanography course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 49:111-119.

Zipp, J.F., 2007. Learning by exams: The impact of two-stage cooperative tests. Teaching Sociology, 35(1):62-76.

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