By now, America’s STEM problem – the growing gap between demand and skill in American jobs in STEM fields – is well recognized (see this commentary by Bill Nye). One source of the problem is a lack of interest in the sciences and mathematics among young Americans that begins at an early age.
Improving America’s STEM education could be a huge step in tackling this problem. In fact, there is lots of research effort put toward how to better teach science and math at all levels. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School is a collection of research on human learning and effective instructional environments. The authors note that as the nature of information has shifted in the twentieth century, the focus of education must as well:
In the early part of the twentieth century, education focused on the acquisition of literacy skills: simple reading, writing, and calculating. It was not the general rule for educational systems to train people to think and read critically, to express themselves clearly and persuasively, to solve complex problems in science and mathematics…More than ever, the sheer magnitude of human knowledge renders its coverage by education an impossibility; rather, the goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts. Fundamental understanding about subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals’ more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners. (4-5)
However, the task of helping students develop tools and strategies is considerably more complicated than teaching facts. The goal of a science educator is to train students to think like experts in the field – yet the gap between expert and novice can be prohibitively large. The so-called “curse of knowledge” or expert blindness might contribute to the general idea that science education is bland, rigid, and impersonal. Experts that have excelled to a level of competency, which is no longer conscious, may have trouble connecting to novices with no context for their own level or mastery or lack thereof. How can experts connect to novices in a way that is meaningful and engaging?
In direct response to this question, the researchers behind How People Learn emphasize 3 key findings:
1. “Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purpose of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.” (p.14)
This means that educators must work with the pre-existing knowledge students bring to the classroom, rather than as approaching them as empty slates. The constructivist mindset is that new learning is based on knowledge you already have, and that therefore learning is very individual.
One way to approach teaching with respect to pre-existing knowledge is active learning and peer instruction. Active learning refers to the practice of deviating from a lecture format and asking students to actively interact with the material through worksheets, discussion, or demonstrations. One striking research study conducted by Freeman et al. found overwhelmingly positive results among students who engage in active learning at least 25% of classtime. In fact, the results were so overwhelmingly positive that there was immediate push to shift research from whether or not active learning is effective to which kinds of active learning are most effective.
Peer instruction is one form of active learning that has been adapted in a number of college classrooms. A basic peer instruction cycle would work like this:
1. Ask a multiple-choice question to the class. Good questions are ones that prompt discussion and challenge the preconceptions of students.
2. Each student will answer on their own.
3. Ask students to discuss their answers with their neighbors. It might be difficult to engage shy students, but often asking them to “convince your neighbor your answer is correct” get the conversation going.
4. After a few minutes, ask students to again answer on their own.
5. Lead a class-wide discussion based on the correct answers and the answers you saw.
I have personally been in a class that used peer-instruction in this way. The class was a subject enough outside my comfort zone that I actually needed that bit of encouragement to engage in the discussion. I personally found that having these little in-class quizzes encouraged me to prepare more for the class, and the openly talk through my thought process when answering a question. Ultimately, I felt I gained a much better handle on the material because of it.
2. “To develop competence in an area, students must: a.) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, b.) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and c.) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.” (p.16)
I think the most important point in this key finding is point (c) – organizing knowledge in a way that facilitates retrieval and application. This is the point at which students step beyond learning facts, and move toward learning tools and strategies. One way educators can facilitate this is teaching some matter in depth, but providing many examples of the same concept at work.
Of course, there must be a firm foundational knowledge base upon which the students organize information. A big question I’ve encountered among educators is how to use a finite amount of classtime to both impart the factual knowledge base and build facts into a conceptual framework. One idea is the “flipped classroom” model. In this setting, students are asked to do reading or small homework exercises before classtime. The idea is to ask students to learn the easy things on their own at home (definitions or basic concepts), while using classtime to help with the more difficult concepts.
3. “A ‘metacognitive’ approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.” (p.18)
Notice the two things mentioned here – defining learning goals and monitoring progress in achieving them.
Defining learning goals is not necessarily a natural thing for a student – especially a novice – to do. This is another way the educator can help. Explicitly defining and relaying learning goals can be a great organizational tool for both the instructor and the student. It is important to have detailed learning goals at both a course and topic level, and to explicitly address two or three with every class session. Good learning goals should involve verbs (and not something vague and immeasurable like “understand”) and look something like “by the end of this lesson/unit/course, you will be able to…” This provides students a way to check themselves also – to use this framework of knowledge and to monitor themselves in how well they are achieving their goals.
Monitoring progress is slightly more complicated, and should involve many levels of evaluation and feedback. During classtime it is important to give some feed back and to encourage a try-fail-receive feedback-try again cycle and atmosphere for exploration. These small evaluations should not be summative. It is always important for feedback to be timely and at an appropriate level. It is hard to achieve both things, but it equips students with the appropriate sense of metacognition crucial for improving from novice to expert.
All of the above ideas are just a few of the new techniques being tested and used by instructors in classrooms all over the country. I believe that these techniques could really transform a classroom for the better – especially STEM classrooms which are not especially discussion-based. The STEM problem is not insurmountable, and I believe that instilling excitement and curiosity in students at an early age will encourage many to go on to get degrees and develop the skills this country needs.