In the past few years, I've participated in several national workshops on teaching in my field of the physical sciences. At all of these, discussions are primarily geared toward the situation in which the professor teaches both lecture and lab sections to a small group of students they know well and interact with frequently. At one workshop, a group of college professors gave presentations on active-learning exercises that integrated lecture and lab time. It was interesting to hear about these activities, but, with a few exceptions, these activities would be difficult (or impossible) to implement in a university environment of teaching a large group of students 2-3 times/week, with the labs taught by graduate students.
I am of course aware of the huge differences in teaching environment between colleges and universities, but I was surprised that it mattered so much in terms of the topics of these workshops. I thought we would spend a lot of time talking about the content of our courses, and would share ideas of how we prioritize what information we teach and how we incorporate new ideas in our field into the undergraduate curriculum. That was part of the workshops, but not a major part. I suppose part of the reasoning for the small college focus is that that is the environment in which professors have teaching as their main focus. When you consider the vast numbers of students that take science classes at large universities, though, it's clear that science education initiatives shouldn't ignore that environment/population.
I am generalizing here, but from what I saw at the last workshop I attended, the small college professors either went the route of throwing textbook-based teaching out altogether and using an active learning approach, or they stuck very close to the textbooks. In the latter case, if information wasn't in the book, it wasn't taught. This was either because 'students hate it when class material isn't in the textbook' or because 'there's so much stuff in textbooks anyway, who has time to teach even more?'.
In contrast, the university professors, although dominantly using a lecture format in classes, were teaching new things that weren't (yet?) in the textbooks and jettisoning more of the textbook material. That may sound patronizing, but I think it is an example of why it was good to have a workshop that involved both small college and large university professors. Those of us at universities learned about teaching strategies from those who had time to construct and experiment with those, and we in turn showed how new research could be integrated into teaching classic subjects. I don't think this view was generally shared, though -- some of my workshop experiences have been very much one-way streets of 'let us teach you how to teach because we are the experts'.
In one particularly illuminating discussion in a small working group, we all listed the main topics of sophomore-junior level course we all taught. I was the only university professor in the group, and I was the only one whose list of main topics deviated from the rest. There were 2 concepts in particular that I teach that no one else in the group did. Professor Z said "But those concepts are too new and have nothing to do with any of the other concepts we teach", and everyone nodded. Hmm. I said that, in fact, those concepts were more than 20 years old (coincidentally? when Professor Z was a grad student), were among the most important advances in our field in the last few decades, and could easily be well integrated into the broadest possible view of our subfield of the physical sciences. I elaborated and gave examples, but don't know to what effect.
I think the most valuable part of the workshop involved talking about course content (as opposed to all those pedagogical techniques with cute names like think-pair-share and jigsaw..). There was a faction of the workshop that favored omitting vast amounts of course content and focusing instead of learning activities centered on a few concepts. I don't agree with that approach when it is taken to an extreme. I am sure there are better ways to teach than just lecturing for 50-75 minutes at a time to a class, but it's a mistake to go too far in cutting content. It's analogous to teaching kids to think about numbers and different ways to consider a math problem, and finding out years later that they don't know what 6 x 7 is. And 'new' topics that some of us think are central to a modern understanding of the physical sciences get omitted.
I have found that part of the divergence of opinions occurs because some people think of course content as 'facts' to be memorized, whereas others think of them as ideas and concepts (and, yes, facts) that are fundamental to understanding how the world works.
9 months ago