Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching by Gregory Light and Marina Micari

May 23, 2013

As the authors recount in this useful book, the Gateway Science Workshops (GSWs) run by their institution, Northwestern University in the US, target first-year undergraduates with the aim of improving understanding, increasing confidence and spreading enthusiasm so that students ultimately choose to major in science, technology and mathematics subjects.

Via the well-established concept of peer (collaborative) learning, the facilitators (students a year above the target group) are trained in the underlying science and basic pedagogy, and lead groups of five to eight in discussing and solving problems drawn from real life. Although this work is not credit-bearing, students are keen to participate or to be facilitators, and reported outcomes and feedback have been strongly positive. Having concepts explained by someone close to one’s own age is clearly crucial to the success of the GSWs.

Furthermore, to draw students into the “community of science”, Northwestern developed Science Research Workshops, in which first-year students are invited to do “real research” in the university’s laboratories during the holidays, again with strikingly positive outcomes.

I was convinced by these accounts. But I wasn’t surprised: the ideas aren’t new. Both approaches have long been recognised as effective in increasing deep understanding, confidence and enthusiasm. So why are they so little used in the UK?

Gregory Light and Marina Micari admit that these approaches are not widely adopted in the US either, and the reasons they cite will resonate with UK peers: “Faculty face high and conflicting demands on their time, students resist new practices and educational change does not fit neatly into existing promotion systems.” And this is despite UK institutions’ claims to value high-quality teaching, as they subject academics to student satisfaction surveys (often completed most critically by those who attended fewest lectures), while simultaneously demanding (and rewarding) incessant grant applications.

So what could persuade academics to adopt these practices, if increased student knowledge, understanding and engagement aren’t enough? More funding? More people to share the work? Better recognition for teaching quality? Light and Micari acknowledge that they require funds and people (and energy). But without honesty about what it takes to foster change, there will only ever be a few enthusiastic adopters, and initiatives will fizzle out when the resources evaporate, if they exist at all at present.

The most persuasive argument is the prospect of a reduction in the teaching time required of each academic at zero additional cost to the department, and with improved student outcomes. Surely that’s impossible, you cry. Oh no it’s not! The answer lies in the adage “work smarter, not harder”, and in ditching the traditional lecture. These were devised in the 14th century to transfer information from lecturer to students who copied it for future study. Deeper understanding was achieved through personal study and group discussion with “the master”. In the 21st century, we have multiple ways to transfer information - photocopiers, printers, videos, online resources. But modern technology has yet to offer a better way to develop deeper understanding; group discussions, with a leader diagnosing individual misconceptions and drawing students to greater knowledge, still cannot be beaten. That’s not to say one should never lecture - there will always be space for the truly inspirational lecture. But students tell us that day-to-day lectures are better replaced by video recordings, rerun on demand, to enable flexible, individualised learning at the student’s chosen pace.

Light and Micari offer an excellent guide to “making scientists”, although precise examples of what GSW students considered good and less helpful problem types would be instructive. For such initiatives to become more widespread, higher education teachers and institutions must radically reconsider how information is best transferred, replace most lectures with recorded resources, and use (half of) academics’ freed-up time more productively in leading GSW-style group discussions to generate more in-depth understanding.

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