Like many nerds I have liked my favorite societies and funding agencies on Facebook. Two of them posted this press release from the NSF today summarizing a study that suggests that students in classes that have activities and interaction do better than those who are in classes that are purely lecture based. Not surprising of course, and not restricted to STEM fields. Plenty of students do well with lectures, but interaction in some form is important. In short:
“A significantly greater number of students fail science, engineering and math courses that are taught lecture-style than fail in classes incorporating so-called active learning that expects them to participate in discussions and problem-solving beyond what they’ve memorized.“
What this press release doesn’t discuss though, are two key problems that exist that will make solving this problem exceedingly difficult; absurdly large classes and temporary adjunct labor.
Doing interactive classes is simple when you have 20 students. You can bring in materials, hold discussions, do lab exercises, etc. 100 students gets tough, and 150 or more and you are really fuchsited. I know, I know look at these great iClickers we can use where we can have all 600 students in a lecture hall participate. Besides being total crap, that type of interaction isn’t really what is being talked about in this study. This study was focusing on activities that helped students learn to “think like a scientist,” I’ve been a scientist now for years and I have yet to meet a problem that I’ve solved via multiple choice. iClickers and all other edu-hoaxes are not the same as actual interaction.
In addition, designing and implementing in-class activities takes time. You might want to prep materials before hand, and you will undoubtably refine the exercise over time. Great it you are full time, but with a large majority of classes being taught by adjuncts, this is unrealistic. Adjuncts are not paid for prep time, often have exceedingly limited resources, and have no guarantee, or even reasonable expectation, that they will ever teach at that school again.
So if you are full time and have a class of 25, awesome. I was lucky enough to go to a school like this, lots of small classes and an environment that both attracted and helped foster innovative teaching methods. This isn’t the case for most students though, most students in science classes at the college level are not going to be in small classes with full time faculty. These ideas on how to improve education are well and good, but we cannot pretend like there aren’t systemic and structural failings in the modern university that make the implementation of these recommendations on a large scale unrealistic. I suppose my point is that fixing American science education (or any education, this isn’t limited to STEM field, those are just the ones I know the best) will take much more than telling people to be more interactive. We also need to rebuild the environment where interaction can happen for all students, not just for the students lucky enough to be in a class of 20 with a full time instructor.