Monday, December 11, 2006


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.


Anonymous said...

When I was a student, I thought it an advantage to be taught things not (yet) in the textbook at the cost of leaving out some stuff from the textbook. After all, I can read the book myself.

Anonymous said...

Woman professor,

I was wondering if you could comment a bit about the mentors/role models that you found/seeked along the way of your career, the type of relationships you had and what it changed for you.
I am a scientist in engineering who loved the work and the people around me during my PhD. Near the end of my PhD and during my postdoc, my isolation as a female scientist and my witnessing of several strong sexist comments made me develop a “I don’t need anybody, I can mentor myself” kind of attitude which is probably not very healthy. I love going to conferences but I feel kind of lonely coming back to my institution. I still love the scientific work itself but would like to progress in my understanding of career options and just become a better scientist.
Thank you.

Unknown said...

"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."

But if they really understood how to consider the math problem, wouldn't they at least be able to figure out 6x7? At some point there is so much content that students are memorizing seemingly random facts without connecting them, and (if they are anything like me) years later they don't know anything from the class. I believe that you know how much content you can cover--just because you go to conferences like this (and seem to really care about teaching), but I do not trust the same of many of your colleagues.
I came from a small college and find that, except for the classes of 2 good professors I've had here, I don't remember anything from my classes (some of which were just last year) if I can't specifically connect it to something I had been taught in undergrad, when I used to really learn things.

Unknown said...

Sorry, in the comment above "here" is the huge R1 university where I'm in grad school.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

I have taught chemistry in what passes for a large University (# > 10,000 students) and in a very small University (# < 1000) in my country (Canada). In my experience, it is the student load numbers that dictate course content and testing. Yes, you are welcome to bring in material from beyond the text but in a large University you do it with the expectation of extra time spent dealing with students that stuggle with the material in these extra areas the text will not help them. Now, if you have tutors and markers that are ready to deal with the extra-textual material then you are golden. In smaller Universities with smaller classes you are welcome to wander all over the place but here the peril is the course transfer. Students are keenly aware that many of them will not get a degree from Lower Bend in the River College but will transfer to Big Honking University. If you make the course too specific to your college then you can lose the transfer credit. The safe thing to do is pick an industry standard textbook and follow it.

By the way, the contents of the textbooks are dictated by the professors at Big Honking University and the texts are revised every two years. So how is it that the content of the courses are so different if the college professors just follow the texts written for the University professors?

Female Science Professor said...

It's different in my field. The textbooks in the topic to which I referred are written by small college professors. My point was that this material is not 'extra' if you consider what someone really needs to know about the topic; it needs to integrated into the course as a whole, not as "oh by the way, here's this extra thing you need to know because you're at a big university".

I should also have mentioned that do all my own grading for course (but not lab) material, so if I introduce new information, I am responsible for finding ways to make it understandable and for evaluating the outcome.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a big public research university and I cannot imagine not bringing in material from outside the textbook. Whether I am teaching large freshman classes or small graduate classes, I always have the students read about new advances in the field. Depending on the class, I assign them readings from the peer-reviewed literature, Scientific American level articles or the New York Times science section type article.

Female Science Professor said...

Louise, I didn't have any women professors in the sciences, or women science teachers before going to college. I had some very kind and interesting male professors in college, but I can't say they were encouraging -- they thought I might be too unaggressive to make it as an academic or scientist. In grad school, I had what might be called anti-mentors. I don't mean to downplay the importance of mentors; I think it's great when it works and I've seen as a professor that role models are important. I just can't point to any personal experiences as a student. It does get a lot better after grad school/postdoc, even if there are still annoying situations.