Developing biology: What did students actually learn?

At the beginning this series of essays, I wrote of my three goals for introductory science classes: I must teach students basic content, I must teach them what science “is,” and I must convince them that they can, indeed, “do” science. Final grades from this 2011 course (average B-) indicate that I accomplished the first two goals. But what about that most challenging third goal? It is arguably the most important, but growing evidence indicates that such a sense of self-ability cannot be taught, at least not directly.

My goal of “convincing” students they can do science aligns with character traits associated with belonging, perseverance, and self-efficacy, variously nicknamed courage (Perry 1968 Forms of intellectual and ethical development chapter 3 footnote 5), growth mindset (Carol Dweck), and grit (Paul Tough). Importantly, there is growing evidence that such character traits are key to developing a sense of belonging and ability – self-efficacy – that in turn can lead to academic (and life) success. Critically for those of us who wish to engage students in this fashion, Tough argues convincingly that we cannot actually teach “grit.” These  character traits emerge in students experiencing learning within a particular classroom culture. What we can do is to provide the climate and conditions, curriculum and scaffolding, that help students grow in their sense of belonging, ability, and belief that what they are doing matters.

2_ADDA base
Francesca Fornasari, Architect.


Students come into our classrooms each with their own peculiar background of experiences and knowledge. Within the metaphor of knowledge as a landscape, as a teacher I must accept that students’ perspectives are real even though they may be unintelligible to me. Each student stands at a unique location, and carries a personal set of lenses she uses to interpret what she sees. When I require a student to use a scientific approach to understand what she is experiencing, I may be asking her to try new – perhaps unnerving – tools for understanding. Without the combination of a supporting climate and personal self-belief, pushing may be so unnerving as to cause her to revert to memorize and regurgitate strategies to pass the class. However, although I may be only able to teach the skills and content of science, I can work to provide the climate and conditions that produce a desire to try out these new skills. Then there is the chance she will  learn how to choose, among all the lenses and tools she carries, which lens is appropriate for understanding a particular aspect of the landscape. These are skills she can use to find her own paths through life.

So to cut to the bottom line, how did I do in 2011?

I did teach students basic content and the foundational pieces of the scientific method, how to evaluate the science in a media report, and gave them practice interpreting real data. The average students did B/C work, and from here I can see that the exams were very challenging, so the majority did learn this content and skill set. Whether or not I convinced any students that they could “do” science is only hinted at from the bits of quantitative data I have, such as that the majority of students did participate in classroom “clicker” problems and on-line formative quizzes (which did improve performance on the summative exams).

In reality, though, I interacted individually with only a small number of students – those sitting at the front, those asking questions from the back, and those who came to my office to talk. Several joined my lab, most of them not pre-med or biology majors, so those students felt encouraged to try “doing” science. I cannot know if any other students felt a sense of empowerment, of growing competency in science. In hindsight, I am not certain that any instructor can empower students when delivering lectures from the front of a 200-seat lecture hall. I was still the person in power and the information moved primarily in one direction (clear from my knowing nothing about student learning that is not revealed in their grades). Very importantly, I doubt that students dismayed at being required to take a science class to meet distribution requirements lost their sense of doom within this setting. If “doing science” means using the process of science to make meaning and reach understanding, the course included few mechanisms for me to encourage students or to discover if they were growing in that direction.

So in summary, this course was (and remains) very traditional. The quizzes have been abandoned since I left the team and the efforts at further reform are, I gather, geared towards increasing the writing components (graded by graduate students) in labs and devoting more time to collaborative problem solving in the lectures. The degree to which the process of arriving at an answer is emphasized over giving the “right” answer will determine whether any of these reforms increase critical thinking skills and create a climate promoting the growth of “grit.” I moved on, away from the large lecture setting and into the wider landscape of STEM education. My next stop was a high school classroom….

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