Rote learning is failing science students

Opinion: Problem-solving, creativity and experimentation are crucial tools of the trade

“When asked questions such as ‘Can sound smash a wine glass?’, students developed strategies without a lab manual to follow.” Photograph: Thinkstock

“When asked questions such as ‘Can sound smash a wine glass?’, students developed strategies without a lab manual to follow.” Photograph: Thinkstock

 

One of the strongest predictors of a science student’s academic performance is their level of engagement with their learning. There is considerable published evidence showing how inquiry-based, student- centred teaching can create and sustain engaged students who are motivated to learn. All levels of our education system should reflect this.

When I started lecturing at the school of physics at Trinity College Dublin, I was asked to teach an undergraduate practical physics laboratory class. After a year I was underwhelmed by these labs as a learning environment. Students used a “cookbook” approach to experimental tasks, following a step- by-step laboratory manual to reach a predetermined goal.

This method had little in common with what scientists do: form a hypothesis, design an experiment and test the hypothesis. My students had shown they could follow instructions but showed little understanding or application of the underlying concepts and the nature of experiment.

Working with colleagues from the school of education at Trinity, we developed a new methodology for these lab classes, where students worked in teams to solve experimental challenges. When asked questions such as “Can sound smash a wine glass”, students developed strategies without a lab manual to follow.

The effect was fantastic. The students saw themselves as responsible for their learning, and the lecturer as a facilitator. Students had a broader sense of the scientific process and were cognisant of the important role of creativity and failure. Crucially, they were more engaged.

Our approach built on published work by other scientists and educators whose findings demonstrated the need for education systems to move away from relying almost exclusively on explicit (or rote) learning, such as the Leaving Certificate.

 

Student dialogue

A common feature of these pedagogies is student dialogue. The University of Minnesota has shown how students’ ability to problem-solve improves through the collaboration inherent in inquiry-based learning, which gives learners the chance to continuously test and, if necessary, revise their ideas.

Professor of education Jay Lemke has argued that “as with learning a foreign language, fluency in science requires practice at speaking . . . It is when we formulate questions, argue and reason that we learn.”

In Ireland, calls for diversity in how we teach are not new. In 1894, Dublin physicist Thomas Preston wrote: “Knowledge is not the mere memory of facts but the comprehension of their meaning in the story of nature.” It is that comprehension that students in rote-learned environments so often lack.

To demonstrate this, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics produced an astonishing film, A Private Universe, in which astrophysics graduates had serious misconceptions about the origins of the seasons and the phases of the moon. Despite their ability to recall complex scientific concepts taught through traditional lectures, they were unable to apply them and solve relatively simple problems.

In the US, scientists have done a great deal of research into the teaching and learning of science. A review of this field by Joe Redish of the University of Maryland concluded that active engagement techniques are more effective than traditional, more didactic approaches because they instil a “need to learn”. The wider scientific community, through bodies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has entered the frame too, giving guidance on what good science education should be.

Their ambitious Project 2061 says “the life- enhancing potential of science, technology, engineering and maths cannot be realised unless people come to understand them and acquire scientific habits of mind”. These habits are central to a rounded scientific education: creativity, scepticism, logic, lateral thinking and problem- solving.

Despite the evidence for diversifying the way we teach, resistance to change has come from several sources. Ramón López of the American Physical Society outlined these in a 2001 study. Many people see inquiry- based teaching as something that will move away from the rigour associated with explicit pedagogies and that “science is meant to be tough, not fun- or curiosity-driven”. More think: “I did fine. We’ve always done it this way: it did me no harm.”

Textbook publishers, for whom the current system is profitable, have also raised concerns.

Finally, high-stakes tests force educators to teach to the test. If your students are assessed on their ability to recall or repeat information, educators will resist changing from explicit teaching methods where they feel they can do best for their students in the exam. The test is more important than the learning. Assessment methods drive change in teaching and learning.

My motivations for changing the way I teach were not to satisfy a philosophical belief. I wanted more of my students to do better. I wanted them to acquire scientific habits of mind, and a mechanism to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and sustain a lifelong love of learning and science. There is a wealth of evidence for teaching models that reflect this. We can do better for our students by applying them.

  • Dr Shane Bergin is lecturer in the school of physics at Trinity College Dublin and founder of City of Physics
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