UniServe€ Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol 1, July 1995

Promoting Active Learning in Introductory Science Courses

John Dearn was awarded one of two inaugural CAUT National Teaching Fellowships in 1994 and spent three months in the USA based at Harvard University. While in the USA he visited colleges and universities looking at innovative approaches to teaching introductory science courses, attended a conference Revitalising Introductory Science and Mathematics Courses and visited a number of organisations including the American Association for Higher Education and the National Science Foundation.

John Dearn is a Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University of Canberra where he has a particular interest in first year teaching.

Large introductory science classes are something of a tradition in our universities. Courses where students sit in silence transcribing information while they are spoken at, where assessment is based only on objective tests, where the major task of the course is to get through the textbook, where laboratory classes are based only on cookbook demonstrations and where there is little opportunity for students to explore and question ideas with fellow students and faculty have become commonplace. Interest in undertaking university courses is not high and even for those students choosing to study science the experience can be unsatisfying with courses perceived to be dull and with little relevance to students' lives and experiences.

The introductory university science course has to balance many conflicting objectives but the need for content coverage seems to dominate above all. The curriculum, dictated to a large degree by the text book, has become more of a hurdle to be overcome in the available time rather than a field for exploration, inquiry and imagination. Moreover, the linear sequence of topics, while making sense to expert faculty deeply immersed in the field, may not be obvious to the novice learner who often sees it as a mass of unrelated facts. The tendency of conventional textbooks to proceed from theory to examples appears to be the opposite to the way we actually learn where observation precedes concept formation.

If students are taught to be passive transcribers of knowledge then that is what they will become. Introductory courses are formative experiences that introduce students to the nature of higher education. They should be designed to not only introduce students to the way of thinking in a particular discipline or professional area but also foster the cognitive, ethical and aesthetic development. However, rather than broaden intellectual vistas they often do little more than exercise students' ability to memorise terms and definitions. More seriously, there is growing evidence that the learning we encourage is not effective and fails to affect how students view and interpret the world around them.

The presentation of course content knowledge does not automatically result in students developing thinking and communication skills. We need to teach less, pursue the connections between the material we teach and the issues and problems of the outside world and engage students in discussion, analysis and critical thinking. Helping students engage with science and achieve meaningful learning will only come when science knowledge is connected to personal, social and historical contexts and our teaching must reflect this.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of science as it is presented in most introductory courses is that it is does not reflect the very nature of science. Above all, science students must be involved at a personal level with inquiry and come to develop through dialogue and interaction with other students confidence in their own powers of investigation rather than relying on the textbook as a source of authority. Courses based on the accumulation of facts will not achieve this and another approach to teaching is needed. Learning which involves students doing more than passively listening can take many forms and the general term `active learning' is useful to describe activities that engage students in writing, discussion and reading and which require higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

While these educational outcomes are readily articulated they can be difficult to translate into concrete teaching practises and the purposes of my CAUT Fellowship was to find faculty who were attempting to do just that. Many of the people who were developing effective approaches to science teaching were in the small independent liberal arts colleges, undergraduate institutions focusing primarily on teaching with an excellent record of educational achievement. In addition to recruiting outstanding faculty these colleges being relatively small in size have developed a strong sense of community which greatly facilitates good learning. Teaching innovation within the independent liberal arts colleges has been a focus of the work of Project Kaleidoscope examined during my Fellowship. Project Kaleidoscope has sought to identify what works in university science education, identify the central principles that guide these programs and disseminate this information among faculty teaching undergraduate science.

The work of Project Kaleidoscope shows the importance of the development of community among students as a way of facilitating active learning through discussion and collaboration. In small residential colleges this may be easier to achieve than in large non-residential universities. However, teaching strategies incorporating various forms of collaborative learning, have been developed, even for very large lecture classes and were specifically examined as part of my Fellowship. Peer group learning and peer teaching has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to achieve meaningful learning and in addition helps to provide the social support that many students need as they embark on their university studies. The predominance of lecture centred teaching, where students are forced to adopt a passive role in the learning process, is a curious feature of university education especially in introductory science courses.

During my Fellowship I collected course material from a large number of innovative programs in biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. Anybody who would like information on these programs or who would like to participate in a discussion about the issues raised in this article through the development of a network of university science educators is invited to contact me.

John Dearn

Dr John Dearn
Faculty of Applied Science
University of Canberra
PO Box 1, Belconnen ACT 2616
Tel: (06) 201 2237 Fax: (06) 201 5030
email: dearn@aerg.canberra.edu.au

Sites of Interest

Teaching and Learning Technology Project


ERIC (Educational Resources Info Centre)

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