There are currently great needs and great opportunities for improvement in post-secondary science education. As world education improves, we need to provide more students with complex understanding and problem solving skills in technical subjects to allow them to be responsible and successful citizens in modern society.

Emerging research indicates that our colleges and universities are not achieving this. However, there are great opportunities to improve this situation using advances in the understanding of how people learn science and advances in educational technology.

Students Are Not Apprentices – But It's Not A Bad Concept

The current model of higher education grew in a haphazard fashion that has left us with traditional practices and modes of organization that in some aspects are poorly matched to modern educational needs. It seems likely that the university grew out of the apprenticeship model of an expert working closely with an apprentice, assigning them challenging tasks and then providing guidance as needed to carry out those tasks, as well as offering ongoing feedback on their work. This model, or its modern day embodiment of “the expert individual tutor,” remains the most effective demonstrated approach to education.

As knowledge and population grew, the apprentice model expanded into the university with an increasing number of students for each expert, in order to pass along information more efficiently. The lecture format predominant today began long ago, before the invention of the printing press, as an efficient way to pass along information and basic skills such as writing and arithmetic in the absence of written texts. The economies of scale led to this expanding to the current situation of a remote lecturer often addressing hundreds of largely passive students.

It's unclear that this model was ever truly effective for science education and vast societal and technological changes over the past several decades make it clearly unsuitable for science education today. The most significant of these changes are discussed below:

1) Modern day educational needs and goals are far different from what they were in past centuries or even a few decades ago. The modern economy demands and rewards complex problem solving and communication skills in technical subjects and complex problem solving skills are frequently at odds with traditional university teaching practices. The lecture model, while conducive to transfer of simple information, loses much of the individualized challenging exercises and feedback that is a critical part of the apprenticeship model for acquiring complex problem solving skills. While this individual instruction was retained in the British system of tutors for study in sciences, that system is not economically practical for large scale use.

2) Changing student demographics. Until a few decades ago, college education was considered necessary and useful for only a select few. Now college has become a basic educational requirement for most occupations in the modern economy. This means that a larger and more diverse segment of the population is seeking post-secondary education than in previous times, and thus a system is needed that can deliver a high quality education to that large diverse population.

It is difficult to adequately emphasize how enormous this demographic change is from the situation that existed when most of our colleges and universities were originally created and their organizational structures established.

It is even dramatically different from what existed when many of today’s college teachers and administrators were in college themselves. Those who lament that we just need to get back to “the good old days,” don't understand today’s realities. We face an educational challenge which is unprecedented: the need to effectively teach complex technical knowledge and skills to the bulk of the total population. The approaches of the past are clearly inadequate to meet this need.

3) Faculty members’ responsibilities are far different from what they were several decades ago. This is particularly true at the large research universities that stand at the top of the higher education pyramid and train nearly all the higher education faculty.

The modern research university now plays a major role in knowledge acquisition and application in science and engineering, through the efforts of the faculty. Running a research program has become a necessary part of nearly every science and engineering faculty member’s activities, and it is often the most well recognized and rewarded part. Such a research program requires the successful faculty member to spend time writing proposals and obtaining research funding, managing graduate students and staff, writing scholarly articles, participating in scholarly societies, and traveling to conferences and lectures.

This is much like the demands of running a small (or sometimes not so small) business. Faculty members are also increasingly encouraged by their institutions and governments to take the additional step of converting the knowledge of their research lab into commercial products. This brings additional revenues into the institution and provides highly visible justification for the government expenditures on basic research at universities. When they take this step into commercialization, the faculty members are often literally running a business, in addition to the business-management-like responsibilities of running a university research lab.

While good arguments can be made for the value of such faculty driven university research and the creation of spin-off companies, the result is a faculty with new sets of demands and responsibilities that were largely nonexistent at the middle of the last century. These demands must be considered in any discussion of changing higher education.

4) While the above changes are in the educational role and environment of the university, changes of a rather different sort have also taken place; changes in the state of knowledge of how to assess and achieve effective science education. The understanding of how people think and learn, particularly how they learn science, has dramatically improved over the past few decades. (1)

While there has never been a shortage of strongly held opinions throughout history regarding “better” educational approaches, there is now a large and growing body of good research, particularly at the college level in science and engineering, as to what pedagogical approaches work and do not work and with which students and why. There are also empirically established principles about learning emerging from research in educational psychology, cognitive science, and education that provide good theoretical guidance for designing and evaluating educational outcomes and methods. These principles are completely consistent with those pedagogical practices that have been measured to be most effective.

An important part of this research is the better delineation of what makes up expert competence in a technical subject and how this can be more effectively measured.

While there is still much to be learned, there is enormously more known now than existed when the teaching methods in use in most college classrooms today were introduced and standardized. Briefly summarizing a large field, research has established that people do not develop true understanding of a complex subject like science by listening passively to explanations.

True understanding only comes through the student actively constructing their own understanding through a process of mentally building on their prior thinking and knowledge through “effortful study”.(2) This construction of learning is dependent on the epistemologies and beliefs they bring to the subject and these are readily affected (positively or negatively) by instructional practices.(3,4) Furthermore, we know that expert competence is made up of several features. (1,2)

In addition to factual knowledge, experts have unique mental organizational structures and problem solving skills that facilitate the effective retrieval and useful application of that factual knowledge. These also facilitate further learning of related material. Experts also have important metacognitive abilities; they can evaluate and correct their own understanding and thinking processes. The development of these expert "beyond factual" competencies are some of the new ways of thinking that students must construct on their path to “expertness.”

There are important implications of this research for both teaching and assessment:

i) The most effective teaching of science is based upon having the student fully mentally engaged with suitably challenging intellectual tasks, determining their thinking, and providing specific targeted and timely feedback on all these relevant facets of their thinking to support the student's ongoing mental construction process.

ii) Meaningful assessment of science learning requires tests that are carefully constructed to measure these desired ways of thinking. As such, their design must be based on an understanding of these expert characteristics and how people learn, in addition to a thorough understanding of student thinking about the subject in question. Such assessments go well beyond the simple testing of memorization of facts and problem solving recipes that is the (unintended and unrecognized) function of the typical college examination.

5) The final dramatic change is in the state of education related technology. Everyone is aware of the enormous increases in the capabilities of information technology (IT) over the past few decades, years, and even months. These offer many fairly obvious opportunities for dramatically changing how teaching is done in colleges and universities, and in the process, making higher education far more effective and more efficient. Unfortunately, these vast opportunities remain largely untapped. While there are a few spectacular examples, generally the educational IT currently available is quite limited in both quantity and quality.

We are now at a watershed in higher education. We are faced with the need for great change, and we have the yet unrealized opportunities for achieving great change. The full use of the research on teaching and learning, particularly as implemented via modern IT, can transform higher education, and allow it to do a far better job of meeting the higher education needs of a modern society.

Much of the rest of this series, compiled from from a presentation I did for the Province of British Columbia, Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development, concerns how such effective teaching practices and the associated valid assessments of learning can be implemented in the modern university environment.

We're going to discuss the characteristics of this hypothetical transformed - optimized - university, and then we're going to discuss how we can do it, in the next installment, Optimizing Science Education: What We Will Need For The University Of 2020.


J. Duederstadt, A University for the 21st Century, Univ. of Mich. Press (2000) provides an extensive discussion of these topics.


(1) J. Bransford et al, How people learn, NAS Press, Wash. DC. (2002)

(2) P. Ross, The expert mind, Scientific American, pg. 64, Aug. 2006, and K. A. Ericsson, et al, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Cambridge Univ. Press (2006)

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

(4) W. K. Adams, K. K. Perkins, N. Podolefsky, M. Dubson, N. D. Finkelstein and C. E. Wieman, A new instrument for measuring student beliefs about physics and learning physics: the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey, Physical Review Special Topics: Phys. Educ. Res. 2, 010101, 2006, and K. K. Perkins, W. K. Adams, N. D. Finkelstein, S. J. Pollock, and C. E. Wieman, Correlating Student Beliefs With Student Learning Using The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey, PERC Proceedings 2004.