engaging students in science through interactive learning

This is another re-post from Talking Teaching. I know that whole interactive-engagement thing is becoming the norm in schools, but I thought it might be interesting (for teachers, in particular) to see some of the back-story 🙂

After my lecture today one of the students said, "I like your lectures, they’re interactive. You make me want to come to class."

I’m really rapt about this; I’ve worked hard over the last few years to make my lectures more interactive: creating an atmosphere where the students feel comfortable & confident about asking questions; where we can maybe begin a dialogue around the topic du jour; where we can spend a bit of time working around a concept. I guess this reflects my own teaching philosophy: I’ve never felt happy with the ‘standard’ model. (I can hear some of you saying, but what’s that? I guess you could say, the stereotypical, teacher-focused model of lecture delivery.) Way back when I was a trainee secondary teacher, my then-HoD was very big on me talking & the kids writing; we had to agree to disagree… Anyway, as time’s gone on my teaching’s become more & more ‘research-informed’, in the sense that I’ve increasingly delved into the education literature & applied various bits & pieces to what I do in the classroom. Anyway, to cut what could become a very long story a bit shorter, there’s good support for the interactive approach in the literature.

A recent, & prominent, proponent of getting students actively involved in what goes on in the lecture theatre is Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, who gave a couple of seminars at Auckland University & AUT late last year. His talks were titled Science education in the 21st century – using the insights of science to teach/learn science. I wasn’t lucky enough to go there, but the next best thing – the powerpoint presentation he used – is available on the Ako Aotearoa website. The theme of the presentation is that if we really want our students to learn about the nature of science, then we need to encourage them to think the way scientists do. This means giving them the opportunity to do experiments (& not the standard ‘recipe’-type experiments so common in undergraduate lab manuals, either), to ask questions, to make mistakes. Anyway, the presentation’s great & I thoroughly recommend having a look at it (hopefully that link will work for you).

But my active thinking about interactive learning goes back rather longer – I think I first really began to consciously focus on it when I was re-developing the labs for our second-year paper on evolution. Teaching evolution the ‘traditional’ way just doesn’t work; it does little or nothing to address strongly-held beliefs & misconceptions, mainly I think because the standard transmission model of giving them ‘the facts’ doesn’t let students engage with the subject in any meaningful way. A couple of papers by Passmore & Stewart (2000, 2002) helped me to focus my thoughts & I believe engendered some significant changes (for the better!) in the way our labs were run.

Last year I came across a paper by Craig Nelson, which presents strategies for actively involving students in class. While he talks primarily about teaching evolution, all the methods he describes would surely result in teaching any science more effectively: engaging students with the subject, helping them to gain critical thinking skills, & in the process confronting their misconceptions & comparing them with scientific conceptions in the discipline. (As part of this he gives a reasonably extensive list of resources and techniques to support all this.) Along the way Nelson refers to a 1998 paper by Richard Hake, who looked at the effectiveness of ‘traditional’ versus ‘interactive’ teaching methods in physics classes.

As the title of Hake’s paper suggests, his findings are based on large numbers of students, in classes on Newtonian mechanics. He begins by noting that previous studies had concluded that ‘traditional passive-student introductory physics courses, even those delivered by the most talented and popular instructors, imparted little conceptual understanding of [the subject].’ Worrying stuff. Hake defines interactive-engagement teaching methods as ‘designed at least in part to promote conceptual understanding through interactive engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors.’  He surveyed 62 introductory physics classes (over 6000 students), asking the course coordinators to send him pre- & post-test data for their classes, and asked, ‘how much of the total possible improvement in conceptual understanding did the class achieve?’ Interactive-engagement teaching was streets ahead in terms of its learning outcomes for students.

Nelson argues that such teaching is also far more effective in assisting students in coming to an understanding of the nature of science. The ‘problem’, of course, is that teaching for interactive engagement means that you have to drop some content out of your classes. It just isn’t physically possible to teach all the ‘stuff’ that you might get through in a ‘traditional’ lecture while also spending time on engaging students in the subject & working on the concepts they find difficult (or for which they hold significant misconceptions). In fact, Nelson comments that limiting content is perhaps the most diffiucult step to take on the journey to becoming a good teacher. He also cites a 1997 study that found that ‘ introductory major courses in science were regarded as too content crammed and of limited utility both by students who continued to major in science and by equally talented students who had originally planned to major in science but later changed their minds.’ This is a sobering statement – & perhaps it might be useful in countering the inevitable arguments that you can’t leave things out because this will leave students ill-prepared for their studies in subsequent years… But then, what do we as science educators really want? Students who understand what science is all about, & can apply that understanding to their learning, or students who can (or maybe can’t) regurgitate ‘facts’ on demand for a relatively short period of time but may struggle to see their relevance or importance? I know which one I go for.

Hake, R. Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: a six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics 66(1): 64-74

Nelson, C. (2008) Teaching evolution (and all of biology) more effectively: strategies for engagement, critical thinking, and confronting misconceptions. Integrated and Comparative Biology 48(2): 213-225

Passmore, C. & J. Stewart (2000) “A course in evolutionary biology: engaging students in the ‘practice’ of evolution.” National Centre for Improving Student Learning & Achievement in Mathematics and Science Research report #00-1: 1-11.

Passmore, C. & J. Stewart (2002) “A modelling approach to teaching evolutionary biology in high schools.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 39(3): 185-204.

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