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    A Scientific Approach To Science Education - Technology And Institutional Change
    By Carl Wieman | April 20th 2009 01:12 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Continued from A Scientific Approach to Science Education - Beliefs, Guided Thinking And Technology.

    I assign students to groups the first day of class (typically three to four students in adjacent seats) and design each lecture around a series of seven to 10 clicker questions that cover the key learning goals for that day. The groups are told they must come to a consensus answer (entered with their clickers) and be prepared to offer reasons for their choice.

    It is in these peer discussions that most students do the primary processing of the new ideas and problem-solving approaches. The process of critiquing each other’s ideas in order to arrive at a consensus also enormously improves both their ability to carry on scientific discourse and to test their own understanding.

    Clickers also give valuable (albeit often painful) feedback to the instructor when they reveal, for example, that only 10 percent of the students understood what was just explained.   But they also provide feedback in less obvious ways.

    By circulating through the classroom and listening in on the consensus-group discussions, I quickly learn which aspects of the topic confuse students and can then target those points in the follow-up discussion. Perhaps even more important is the feedback provided to the students through the histograms and their own discussions. They become much more invested in their own learning.

    When using clickers and consensus groups, I have dramatically more substantive questions per class period — more students ask questions and the students represent a much broader distribution by ethnicity and gender — than when using the peer-instruction approach without clickers. 

    A third powerful educational technology is the sophisticated online interactive simulation. This technique can be highly effective and takes less time to incorporate into instruction than more traditional materials. My group has created and tested over 60 such simulations and made them available for free  (www.phet.colorado.edu). We have explored their use in lecture and homework problems and as replacements for, or enhancements of, laboratories.

    The “circuit construction kit” is a typical example of a simulation. It allows one to build arbitrary circuits involving realistic-looking resistors, light bulbs (which light up), wires, batteries, and switches and get a correct rendition of voltages and currents. There are realistic volt and ammeters to measure circuit parameters. The simulation also shows cartoonlike electrons moving around the circuit in appropriate paths, with velocities proportional to current. We’ve found this simulation to be a dramatic help to students in understanding the basic concepts of electric current and voltage, when substituted for an equivalent lab with real components. 

    Circuit Construction Kit Physics Education Technology Project University of Colorado

    Circuit Construction Kit.  Courtesy: Physics Education Technology Project, University of Colorado

    As with all good educational technology, the effectiveness of good simulations comes from the fact that their design is governed by research on how people learn, and the simulations are carefully tested to ensure they achieve the desired learning. They can enhance the ability of a good instructor to portray how experts think when they see a real-life situation and provide an environment in which a student can learn by observing and exploring.

    The power of a simulation is that these explorations can be carefully constrained, and what the student sees can be suitably enhanced to facilitate the desired learning. Using these various effective pedagogical strategies, my group and many others have seen dramatic improvements in learning.

    Comparison of Learning Results from Traditionally Taught Courses and Courses Using Research-Based Pedagogy

    Comparison of Learning Results from Traditionally Taught Courses and Courses Using Research-Based Pedagogy

    Institutional Change

    We now have good data showing that traditional approaches to teaching science are not successful for a large proportion of our students, and we have a few research-based approaches that achieve much better learning. The scientific approach to science teaching works, but how do we make this the norm for every teacher in every classroom, rather than just a set of experimental projects? This has been my primary focus for the past several years.

    A necessary condition for changing college education is changing the teaching of science at the major research universities, because they set the norms that pervade the education system regarding how science is taught and what it means to “learn” science. These departments produce most of the college teachers who then go on to teach science to the majority of college students, including future school teachers. So we must start by changing the practices of those departments.

    There are several major challenges to modifying how they educate their students. First, in universities there is generally no connection between the incentives in the system and student learning. A lot of people would say that this is because research universities and their faculty don’t care about teaching or student learning. I don’t think that’s true — many instructors care a great deal. The real problem is that we have almost no authentic assessments of what students actually learn, so it is impossible to broadly measure that learning and hence impossible to connect it to resources and incentives.

    We do have student evaluations of instructors, but these are primarily popularity contests and not measures of learning. The second challenge is that while we know how to develop the necessary tools for assessing student learning in a practical, widespread way at the university level, carrying this out would require a significant investment.

    Introducing effective research-based teaching in all college science courses—by, for instance, developing and testing pedagogically effective materials, supporting technology, and providing for faculty  development—would also require resources. But the budget for R&D and the implementation of improved educational methods at most universities is essentially zero. More generally, there is not the political will on campus to take the steps required to bring about cultural change in organizations like science departments.

    Our society faces both a demand for improved science education and exciting opportunities for meeting those demands. Taking a more scholarly approach to education—that is, utilizing research on how the brain learns, carrying out careful research on what students are learning, and adjusting our instructional practices accordingly—has great promise.

    Research clearly shows the failures of traditional methods and the superiority of some new approaches for most students. However, it remains a challenge to insert into every college and university classroom these pedagogical approaches and a mindset that teaching should be pursued with the same rigorous standards of scholarship as scientific research.

    Although I am reluctant to offer simple solutions for such a complex problem, perhaps the most effective first step will be to provide sufficient carrots and sticks to convince the faculty members within each department or program to come to a consensus as to their desired learning outcomes at each level (course, program, etc.) and to create rigorous means to measure the actual outcomes.

    These learning outcomes cannot be vague generalities but rather should be the specific things they want students to be able to do that demonstrate the desired capabilities and mastery and hence can be measured in a relatively straightforward fashion. The methods and instruments for assessing the outcomes must meet certain objective standards of rigor and also be collectively agreed upon and used in a consistent manner, as is done in scientific research.

    Other articles in this series:

    Why Not Try A Scientific Approach To Science Education?

    A Scientific Approach to Science Education - Research On Learning

    A Scientific Approach to Science Education - Reducing Cognitive Load

    A Scientific Approach to Science Education - Beliefs, Guided Thinking And Technology


    W. Adams et al. (2005), Proceedings of the 2004 Physics Education Research Conference, J. Marx, P, Heron, S. Franklin, eds., American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, p. 45.

    R. Hake (1998), The American Journal of Physics. 66, 64.

    D. Hammer (1997), Cognition and Instruction. 15, 485.

    D. Hestenes, M. Wells, G. Swackhammer (1992), The Physics Teacher. 30, 141.

    Z. Hrepic, D. Zollman, N. Rebello. “Comparing students’and experts’ understanding of the content of a lecture,” to be published in Journal of Science Education and Technology. A pre-print is available at http://web.phys.ksu.edu/papers/2006/Hrepic_comparing.pdf

    E. Mazur (1997), Peer Instructions: A User’s Manual, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

    G. Novak, E. Patterson, A.Gavrin, and W. Christian (1999), Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

    K. Perkins et al. (2005), Proceedings of the 2004 Physics Education Research Conference, J. Marx, P. Heron, S. Franklin, eds., American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, p. 61.

    E. Redish (2003), Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.


    Originally presented in Change magazine, September/October 2007.


    > to come to a consensus as to their desired learning outcomes at each level

    I agree, though I think there's an additional gap.  You say decide what outcome is desired then teach to it, and by design it "hence can be measured in a relatively straightforward fashion."  In K12 education (at least) they have metrics for assessing how well they achieve their stated goals, e.g. literacy or math proficiency or history knowledge.  They use standardized tests.  That leads to controversy and even adverse teaching, e.g. 'teaching to the test', because under NCLB funding and promotions and such are tied to the results.  I'd love to hear any ideas you have on assessment.

    That said, there was an interesting poll result on K12 literacy mentioned by a colleague in the Dept of Edu-- seems if you ask stakeholders (state gov, boards, and citizens) if there should be a National standard of literacy, the answer is no.  If you ask if there should be an American standard, though, you get the answer of yes.

    So somehow we have to balance having a reasonable approach, with 'selling' people on that valid approach.

    Alex, the daytime astronomer (twitter: @skyday)
    The circuit construction kit: there was I, back in my 12 (or so) year-old mind, standing there in Woolworths and wishing "if only I had one of those!"

    So I tried www.phet.colorado.edu, and got a page load error.  A word to the webmaster, perhaps?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    It used to resolve properly but now it apparently needs a index.php on the end so I updated our URL and made a direct link to the construction kit too.   

    It's still not the same as building a crystal radio in real life but kids don't listen to the radio any more so I do stuff like using a coat hanger to make a lowpass band filter and get television PPV stuff for free.
    That sounds like a good approach. It teaches them more of what it's like to be a actual scientist.  We often find ourselves in teams working on projects.  (Though to be honest I was one of those people who were annoyed by group work in school.  Usually I and maybe one other were the ones doing all the working.)  So long as they have a chance to do some work on their own.

    The problem with K-12 science is that at the end of the day, science is not a set of facts it's a way of thinking.  But the way how much science our students know comes from quizing them on sets of facts via multiple choice. That is the kind of mindset that needs to change. We ought to teach people how to find the answers to whatever they want by logical deduction and experimentation.   It has to be radically different than what is done now.

    Your approach is a good step in the right direction though.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    My 8 yo enjoys playing with snap circuits. She's built some impressive things. Even more impressive are the experiments she and a 9 yo friend come up with together. I watched while the two of them performed sequential experiments, changing one thing at a time and writing down results.

    See some pix of her experimental setup and observations.

    I've been observing the way her teachers at school teach science. The fancy private preschool and kindergarten did an excellent job. The neighborhood public school did a lousy job in first and second grade. Third grade was slightly better. The kids memorized "science facts" and regurgitated them for the standardized tests in May. If it wasn't on the state guidelines for things every x-grader should know, they didn't cover it.

    At one point, a frustrated mother who worked as an engineer before she became a mother*, started an after school "science club" to allow the kids to perform hands-on experiments.

    4th grade is a refreshing change. The textbook is still heavy on annoying "science facts", but her teacher has each child form hypotheses and design experiments to test their hypotheses. The kids rise up to the challenge, learning the value of controlling all but one variable. At the end, they go over their experiments together and discuss whether they proved what they set out to prove and why. (Many of their early designs were seriously flawed.) When I look over her schoolwork, I see that her experimental design skills have improved over the year.

    * There's that pesky leaky pipeline again. But she is not a fluid in a pipeline. The software industry simply threw her away when she wasn't able to work the same long hours and accept the lousy pay they give programmers on H-1B visas.

    Actually, this is a reply to Hontas Farmer who states "The problem with K-12 science is that at the end of the day, science is not a set of facts it's a way of thinking. But the way how much science our students know comes from quizing them on sets of facts via multiple choice. That is the kind of mindset that needs to change. We ought to teach people how to find the answers to whatever they want by logical deduction and experimentation. It has to be radically different than what is done now."

    I was thinking about what you said, and I am wondering what the K-12 Grade individuals who are gaining science knowledge and skills actually doing at the end of the day?

    It seems that with the introduction of technology and gaming applications that incorporate science learning in the school environment, the student, within the home environment does not have the oppurtunities to 'apply the knowledge' beyond learning what type of trees or birds are in the region, or going to the zoo. So, with the technology and the need for utilizing technology, the student now 'bored' seeks other uses for the technology, i.e. games that are not of educational value.
    On one hand, there is the push in the educational system for increasing the students knowledge and skills relating to science and technology. On the other hand, there is the psychological implications of individuals developing pathological or addictive behaviors, as indicated by Dr. Douglas Gentile(2009) research at Iowa State University. With that consideration in mind, it would appear that the parents should become involved with their child when the child is usings educational gaming or personal gaming technology--as a moderator and a participatory learner of the technology and the application software.

    All of my homework is online now. And now what started as a very slight tendency towards ADD and spontaneous behavior has been cultivated into fullblown internet addiction. As soon as my laptop lid goes up, I lose days at a time. I start with the initial intent of doing homework, but my hands move faster than my pre-frontal cortex judgment centers can allow. I've asked professors for an option to provide written homework instead, but the professors explain that the department can't afford TA's to grade written homework.

    And the clickers are a waste of time and money. All they show the teacher is that the majority of the class doesn't know what has been taught, and more time must be taken to explain the concepts in-depth from the textbook, and to engage students personally. It's not against the law to call on a student to answer a question in a classroom of 200 kids, but I hardly see it anymore.

    And in classes like biochemistry or organic chemistry, lessening the cognitive load simply is not an option. There is too much material.