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.


  • Students take each exam twice during the 75-minute class period. The first time is a typical closed book exam (what we call the "solo exam"). Because they are jammed in auditorium seating, I make up two versions of the test on two different colors of paper (version A and version B). Both tests have identical questions, but I change the order of the questions and/or the order of the answer choices. After ~25-30 minutes I ask for a show of hands for who would like additional time. I give them another 5 minutes after which I ask them to quietly and quickly pass in their scantron sheets (not their exams). We then issue a new scantron sheet and the students retake the exam, this time open book, open notes, and talking with their neighbors (the "group exam"). The auditorium erupts in conversation!
  • Our formula for exam grades is "solo exam" = 75% of grade and "group exam" = 25% of grade.
  • This procedure is used in a 75-minute class period, but could also be applied in a 50-minute class period. For example, the "group exam" could be completed as a take-home assignment; if the students don't turn it in at the start of the next class meeting, then the "solo exam" counts for 100% rather than 75% of the exam grade. Alternatively, you could schedule evening exams so that students have adequate time to take the exam twice.

Benefits of the Two-Stage Exam

  • Active learning during an exam setting: discussion, debate, communication, and problem solving!
  • Students have the opportunity to practice important life skills such as cooperative learning, working in groups, considering diverse perspectives, problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis during the group exam as they participate in discussion about the material.
  • Everyone's grade is bumped up a little; a win-win situation!! This is particularly important if this is a course used for a general education or distribution requirement; this is not their major. It is your opportunity to provide greater awareness and a well-educated citizenry (isn't this the spirit of what a liberal arts education is all about?).
  • Students leave the exam feeling like they know the material a little better; there's no need to spend a later class session to review the 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.