Over the years, science education has been gradually reshaped in an attempt to improve learning outcomes. If science education is reformed further, there is potential for scientists to contribute even more to society. Shouldn’t empirically-validated teaching practices be applied across all universities? Further refinement of science education promises to shape a scientifically literate society in which citizens can apply scientific and moral reasoning to real-world situations.
Science education has been constantly evolving and is increasingly influenced by research in scientific teaching and learning. For instance, almost 50 years ago a group of psychologists influenced research in science education by introducing ‘constructivism’: the notion that learning requires active involvement and is constructed from prior knowledge. The application of this educational theory has been shown to promote higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking (1).
Which teaching strategies, based on constructivism, are shown to improve learning, knowledge retention, and reach diverse groups of students?
- Active learning: despite the varied approaches to lecturing, simple passive listening can quickly overload the short-term memory of an average university student. This in turn leads to a less robust understanding and to an increase in undergraduate student dropouts, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. Numerous research studies show that active learners perform significantly better in almost every learning outcome examined when compared to traditional lecturing (2, 3).
- Formative assessment: this is a way for an instructor to learn more about their students’ current knowledge and to subsequently adapt the teaching strategy. As opposed to a summative assessment whereby a student’s learning is assessed by comparing it to a standard or grading scale, a formative assessment allows a quick and easy assessment of students’ understanding without influencing their grades. Giving formative feedback is one of the most powerful methods to enhance the performance of students (4).
- Conceptual change: this strategy requires the instructor to identify students’ preconceived ideas, for instance by using questionnaires or posters, and then to motivate students to change from their own belief or way of thinking to a sound scientific understanding. This strategy considers motivation, sociocultural backgrounds, and students’ level of engagement in learning. It has been shown that people tend to shape and reshape their thoughts upon facing intellectual conflict, which in turn leads them to eventually reach a more advanced level of cognition (5).
- The use of analogies: one of my favorite strategies. Research shows that we do not just employ analogies in everyday thinking; science also relies on analogical thinking (6). For instance, Huygens used water waves to theorize that light is wavelike. This strategy also relies heavily on motivation and interest as fundamental ingredients for effective learning. If a topic is rendered relevant to students through the use of analogies, then they are more likely to relate and understand more abstract concepts. This motivation stems from the fact that students’ previous experience and knowledge are taken into consideration and are combined with new information.
- Connecting science and society: I would consider this strategy as the most important one. ‘Framing’ a lesson can improve students’ interest. This approach requires the instructor to frame teaching to show students that knowledge is relevant for understanding the news, for everyday life, or even for talking to friends, family, and neighbors. The discussion of socio-scientific issues, or controversial social topics related to science, is particularly useful in scientific teaching. An even higher goal can be attained by framing teaching using the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals; a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. ‘Connecting science and society’ that can be easily implemented, for example by bringing a newspaper into a class and asking the students to find links between the topic taught and world events. Additionally, news does not always reflect correct scientific facts. The role of educators should include teaching scientists to explain scientific findings to the general public and to prevent misunderstandings and misconceptions, such as the current controversial anti-vaccination movement.
Despite the numerous evidence in support of reforming science education, the field has been reluctant to take up these reforms due to several reasons: the first is that many scientists lack awareness of data that demonstrate the effectiveness of active learning techniques; the second is that leading scientists have already succeeded in the current educational system; thirdly, that integrating new strategies in teaching can be challenging; and, last but not least, the researchers’ fear that being identified as teachers impacts their research credibility (7-9). In order to encourage change, universities can employ different strategies, such as providing leadership on reform, supporting attendance of new professors at educational meetings, incorporating teaching into graduate courses (similar to how research ethics is mandated by many government agencies in the US, including the National Science Foundation, and by academic institutions at all university levels), or implementing a reward-based system for instructors (for instance for tenure and sabbaticals) (10).
I believe that there is a need for a more uniform way of teaching science. The impact will encompass many attributes. It will attract students to pursue science as a career and improve practicing scientists’ analytical and scientific thinking. Additionally, scientists lead advancements in technology, health and innovation as pillars of society, supplementary to their roles as researchers. To successfully benefit society, scientists need to also work with non-scientists. The latter can also benefit from an education that fosters analytical and scientific thinking in problem-solving. A reformed science education will without doubt improve communication and foster collaboration. How this can be applied in a uniform manner is a topic for further discussion.
Science is a field that is constantly influenced by external factors, and that changes tremendously in response to technology. It is clear that humans need to keep evolving at a fast-enough pace to keep up with technological advancements. It is rare that two people will look at the same information in exactly the same way. Hence, by exposing new minds to information we can also come up with innovative solutions and ideas to the issues facing society. By implementing the aforementioned strategies in scientific teaching, we can harness students’ ways of thinking and their motivations (be it curiosity or a desire to understand the world better) to implement meaningful and durable societal development. The way we teach science should not be set in stone. Positive outcomes are attainable, even if the process requires letting go of old habits and an investment from universities and instructors to implementing change.
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- Pagán B., “Positive Contributions of Constructivism to Educational Design”, Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 2006
- Freeman S., et al. “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics”, PNAS, 2014
- Prince M., “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research”, Journal of Engineering Education, 2004
- Hattie J. & Timperley H., “The power of feedback”, The Review of Educational Research, 2007
- Piaget J., “The Language and Thought of the Child”, Harcourt, Brace, 1926
- Niebert K., Marsch S., “Treagust D. Understanding needs embodiment: A theory‐guided reanalysis of the role of metaphors and analogies in understanding science”, Science education, 2012
- Boyer E., “Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate”, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990
- Shulman L., “Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education”, Jossey-Bass, 2004
- Cech T., “Rebalancing Teaching and Research”, Science, 2003
- Handelsman J., et al., “Scientific Teaching”, Science, 2004