Stephen J. Reynolds: Teaching Undergraduate Science

Most college science courses turn students, including the bright ones, off to science. Clearly something is wrong with the way we teach science. Research shows that students become turned off by (1) an overemphasis on terminology that the student perceives (correctly) they will never use again, (2) a lack of unifying concepts to tie disparate "facts" together, (3) a lack of discovery, and (4) a lack of perceived relevance to the students' lives. A major goal of an introductory science class should be to not turn students off to science. Such courses should convey the fun, excitement, relevance, and intellectual rewards of learning about our environment. Students should see that science is dynamic and a common-sense way of approaching a problem, rather than a foreign way of thinking or a collection of static facts. We should help the students learn, in a hands-on fashion, how to observe and to think (e.g., reason). They should learn science by actually doing science! A main goal of any college course should be to teach students to be clear-thinking, informed citizens who make sound choices in policy and personal-life decisions.

Science teaching in the United States is poised for fundamental change. The standard hour-long lecture-and-note-taking format is not effective for many situations and students, nor does it develop certain important skills, like critical inquiry. Students in traditional science lecture classes may learn some 'facts', but generally do not take from the course an understanding of how science is done. In my undergraduate courses, I emphasize developing observational, reasoning, and critical-inquiry skills, and de-emphasize memorization and rote learning. I have successfully implemented methods for actively engaging the students and getting them to observe, think, and interact with their peers, in spite of the large class size and a large classroom designed for a lecture-style format. I believe that such teaching methods have huge advantages over the lecture-only format, especially in classes with diverse student populations and students with many different learning skills and strategies. As my teaching evaluations attest, students respond eagerly to this approach. Most students look forward to coming to class because it is fun, stimulating, and engaging, and it encourages natural curiosity, questioning, and free exploration of alternative ideas. With more interesting and intellectually challenging courses, students will leave college with an appreciation for science and an openness and enthusiasm for continued learning.

I strongly believe in a constructivist, learning-cycle approach, where students begin learning about a subject by first gaining hands-on personal experience, such as by observing and experimenting. This process lets them remain curious, pose questions, suggest alternative explanations, and devise possible tests and predictions. A discussion of these student-derived questions and explanations lets me introduce terms and concepts only after the students actually have the need for them and have a personal framework into which they can attach their new knowledge. After this term/concept introduction phase, I have the students apply their knowledge to new situations and problems.

Finally, industry representatives indicate that writing is the most important skill that our students need to improve. I incorporate large writing components in all my courses, including my 220-student introductory geology course. I have students peer review each other's drafts and revise their manuscripts, before I grade and edit the papers for content, grammar, and clarity of writing. To give them additional practice writing, I have one or more essay questions on each test. Studies have shown that students study and learn material differently if they expect at least one essay question - it forces them to integrate and synthesize, not just memorize. In addition, my Introductory Geology students do a capstone term paper on the geology of their home town or any other area that has significance to them (e.g., their favorite national park). They investigate how the geology influences the scenery and topography, and evaluate the area's natural resources and hazards. This gives students an opportunity to integrate their knowledge and to apply what they have learned, to a place that means something to them.