Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative, by Carl Wieman

Even scientists may be unmoved by evidence on how to make teaching better, finds Jennifer Rohn

July 27, 2017
Science inertia
Source: iStock

For a profession fuelled by innovation, it is remarkable how little most undergraduate science teaching has changed during the past century. Lecture theatres filled with bored students persist despite ample research proving that top-down pedagogical approaches are ineffective. In recent years, however, interest in novel techniques has grown. And the UK’s teaching excellence framework may incentivise moribund courses to blow off the dust.

But how? Enter Carl Wieman, a physics Nobel laureate at Stanford University with a strong record in education. In the mid-2000s, he spearheaded a multimillion-dollar initiative to improve science teaching, focusing his efforts on two North American institutions. His book lays out with unapologetic candour just how difficult this mission turned out to be.

The idea seems simple enough: departments apply for grants to transform individual courses using evidence-based methods. Overseen by specially trained teaching fellows, faculty modernise their styles. Learning outcomes are improved and departments retain the new methods in perpetuity. And they create materials that can be shared widely, preventing the endless reinvention of the wheel commonplace in higher education.

Despite its admirable aims, the outcomes were mixed, the success stories marred by several conspicuous failures. The star performers transformed many courses, and their faculty seemed to embrace the ethos. However, Wieman doubts that more than a fraction of grant recipients will carry on once the money runs dry. Meanwhile, grand ideas about sharing materials never really took off, and solid data about baseline learning successes were too difficult to harvest, so we still don’t know if the transformations actually worked.

Anyone seeking a how-to book on improving their own course will be disappointed by Wieman’s monograph. The practical guide that the title seems to promise is relegated to Appendix 1 (which is well worth a thumb-through if that is your main interest). But the main chapters, which would have been the logical place to showcase the how-to element framed by rigorous theory, are instead disappointingly meta. We are treated to the Science Education Initiative’s “journey”: how the initiative was rolled out and the many pitfalls it encountered. I found myself wondering why many of the minutiae, such as descriptions of grant-giving, recruitment and administrative processes, weren’t relegated to appendices instead.

And yet, between the dry descriptions of the many obstacles encountered lurks a colourful drama begging to be fleshed out. There are the egos: award-winning professors whose entire academic identity seems to be built around their old-fashioned lecturing style, and who view the trendy new techniques as a personal threat. There are deans whose indifference scuppers the projects before they even begin. Tragically, there are the frustrated teaching fellows who quit in despair in the face of blatant lack of interest. Above all, there is the crushing inertia that anyone in academia will know all too well.

And here is the book’s real value: as a case study in understanding how difficult it is to transform entrenched institutions. As Wieman notes, this phenomenon is not unique to science higher education. His honest descriptions serve as a cautionary yet helpful tale for anyone attempting large-scale culture change, in any arena.

Jennifer Rohn is a principal investigator in University College London’s Centre for Nephrology.


Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative
By Carl Wieman
Harvard University Press, 288pp, £27.95
ISBN 9780674972070
Published 26 May 2017

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: On resistance to change, or inertia

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