What it takes to give your science class a makeover
Walking down the angular halls of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS), Brett Gilley stopped by Professor James Scoates’ office to scan through a stack of activity sheets where fourth-year students had drawn, to the best of their recollection, cross-sections of the Earth’s crust and possible locations of mineral deposits on the first day of class.
“What did students say was the hardest part of the activity?” asked Gilley, a Science Teaching and Learning Fellow (STLF) with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI).
“Scale,” Scoates answered. That piece of feedback from Scoates’ students will not only change how the 16-year veteran teacher begins this future classes, but is influencing the content of several other courses in the department by pointing out one of the major challenges students face, which happens to be one of the key competencies of geological scientists.
This kind of impromptu meeting has become commonplace since 2007, when 27 courses in EOS were selected to undergo transformation. They were chosen, based on reach and impact, to morph over a five-year period from the traditional “stand-and-deliver” model to something much more interactive.
“It was relentless,” Scoates recalls. Over two years starting in 2009, Gilley, Scoates and Assistant Professor Ken Hickey dissected their course, identified the most important concepts in the syllabus and articulated clear goals they’d like students to achieve.
Learning activities such as the deceptively simple drawing exercise were discussed and tested against a growing literature of cognitive psychology research—a key component of Nobel laureate Carl Wieman’s approach to improving teaching and learning undergraduate science through individual course transformations.
“I can’t say I enjoyed all aspects of the process, but I definitely saw the value,” says Scoates, who has since partnered with Gilley to revamp two more courses.
Half of the first-, second- and third-year courses in EOS have undergone transformation—and almost three quarters of the department’s instructors have participated—with the help of Gilley and three other STLFs. As a result, approximately 10,000 students — a majority of them non-science majors —have learned about topics such as natural disasters and climate change in vastly different ways from their parents, or even slightly older cohorts. Nearly at the end of their five-year plan, EOS is now in the midst of a complementary curriculum reform.
“This sort of work usually takes a long time,” says Gilley. “The degree to which the department has embraced this is absolutely amazing.”
Halfway across campus, in Wieman’s home Department of Physics and Astronomy, course transformations are moving ahead with characteristic meticulousness.
The partnership between STLF Louis Deslauriers and Assistant Professor Kirk Madison began over dinner with a visiting colleague.
“I told Kirk about the work I was doing with other courses and I could tell it was outside his comfort zone, but he was also excited by it,” recalls Deslauriers, who helped Madison transform a third-year quantum mechanics course.
“The methods Louis described resonated with me because it’s how I mentor my graduate students—less of a step-by-step cookbook instruction and more an open-ended exploration of ideas,” says Madison. “The challenge was scaling it up to 90 undergrads.”
Deslauriers and Madison focused on creating various points where students are asked, in groups of three or four, to articulate, debate and answer a question —what the two playfully call “learning events.”
“The process of deliberating, communicating and discovering ideas creates a common bond that connects people,” says Madison, who likens it to the spark people experience when falling in love. “Training our students to both think collectively and by themselves is a critical component of a university education because it forms the basis for the creation and acquisition of meaning and knowledge.”
Giving the students time and space to think independently, however, meant relinquishing some control as Master of the Classroom.
“Before I tried these activities for the first time, I worried a lot about crowd control,” Madison says. “Do they see I’m doing my job or would they think I’m downloading responsibility onto them? Are they going to respect me?”
What happened next was “unreal,” says Madison. “When the discussion time was up and I began to offer my feedback, the room went silent. And for the next 180 seconds the students were on the edge of their seats hanging on my every word.”
Madison and Deslauriers recorded such data throughout the term and found that this critical attention span lasted less than four minutes. Their findings are now submitted for publication.
“In a traditional lecture, you can do jumping jacks, cartwheels and back flips and you’d get some of the students’ attention for maybe 10 seconds,” says Madison. “But now I had the undivided attention of the entire class for three whole minutes—they were primed, it was my window of precious lecture time and I knew I had to make it count.”
Madison’s course now revolves around these ‘learning events’—up to a half dozen in a 50-minute class – and his ‘lecture’ consists of feedback and Q&As to those activities. As a result, he has seen improvements in the students’ behaviour and marks, both of which have been meticulously documented and analyzed, another key element of the CWSEI approach.
One of Deslauriers’s recent studies about two other UBC physics classes made headlines worldwide after it appeared in the prestigious journal Science. For their part, researchers and instructors in EOS have produced more than 50 papers, presentations and workshops detailing their experience.
Both teams say establishing a “feedback loop” between instructors and students is key to an engaging learning experience, while mutual respect is the secret of their successful partnerships.
“The barrier has dropped between me and my students,” says Scoates. “They aren’t embarrassed about asking questions or saying what they might think is the wrong thing.”
“I used to ask myself if I’d covered everything I wanted to in a lecture,” says Madison. “Now the question I ask is ‘Did they get it?’ which is a much harder question. But, with constant feedback during class, I am much more certain of the answer.”