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FROM THE FELLOWS COMMITTEE

Using Science to Teach Science

Imagine yourself back in the classroom of your first college science course. How was the content delivered? Did you learn through activities? Discussions? Demonstrations? Videos? Games? Group work? Chances are, probably not. You more likely listened to your professor attempt to pass along as much information as he could (probably via PowerPoint) within the allotted time.

But there are decades of pedagogy studies that clearly show that humans cannot retain large amounts of information delivered in a short amount of time. As scientists, we should be the ideal group to take scientifically proven methods and apply them in practice. Fortunately, higher education institutions are beginning to systematically improve teaching methods collectively in a method known as “active learning.”

NIH is playing a role, too, in providing fellows with in-depth training in how to teach science: The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) offers a nine-week Scientists Teaching Scientists course.

“A lot of effort has been put into professional development for active faculty,” said Barbara Houtz, a science educator who has taught the popular course for nine years. “But now more than ever, the focus has been placed on training scientists at the graduate and postdoc levels, who are more amenable to change.”

In active learning, teachers strive to more directly involve students in the learning process through a diverse range of methods—reading, writing, discussing, and problem solving—all of which are aimed at having students think about the work as well as the purpose behind it. The approach enhances their higher-order thinking capabilities substantially more than passively listening to a lecture does. In a 2014 meta-analysis of 225 studies comparing traditional lecturing to active learning, researchers found that students receiving traditional lectures were 1.5 times as likely to fail as students in classes with active learning. The same study also showed that active learning boosted scores on exams, too. So if the data supporting the effectiveness of active learning are so compelling, why aren’t more professors changing the way they teach?

Given that traditional lecturing has been the go-to teaching method for centuries, the most obvious explanation is, “That’s how I was taught.” But tradition and habits do not mean it’s the best way. Active-learning methods often require more preparation and classroom time, which can cut back on time professors’ need to fulfill their research responsibilities. While more reluctance to adopt active-learning practices comes from the “I have too much content to cover” reason, it can be argued that it’s worth the tradeoff. Attempts to “cover the content” limits students to simply memorizing facts and figures without learning the more important ability to apply their knowledge. As an added incentive, proponents of active learning also claim that it boosts attendance and course satisfaction.

Countless studies from behavioral psychology and neuroscience have taught us ways to confer a deeper understanding and more long-term retention of the material, including repetition, the use of all our senses, student engagement, and making meaningful connections to prior knowledge. As scientists, we should approach teaching the same way we approach our research—taking previous findings (such as those mentioned above) and then using them to guide our future work. A major hurdle, though, is that many professors are simply unaware that so many resources are available to them that would so greatly enhance their teaching effectiveness.

The Scientists Teaching Science course provides an introduction to the basics of learning styles, teaching philosophies (for example, inquiry-based science and active learning), and curriculum development. The course is approached from a cognitive-science perspective, and as the title of the course suggests, is tailored specifically for those with a scientific mindset. Check on future offerings in the upcoming events on the OITE website.


REFERENCE: S. Freeman, S.L. Eddy, M. McDonough, et al., “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111:8410–8415, 2014; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1319030111.