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How Teachers Teach: General Principles

  • How to develop a teaching style that is best suited to your course goals and students' needs.

  • How to plan a course syllabus that will maximize your students' learning.

  • What research tells us about effective teaching.

Have you ever observed your students struggling with a particular concept, then revised your presentation of that material the next semester? Have you ever concluded that the only way to reach some students is with a specific strategy, such as using demonstrations or requiring written assignments? Has someone ever told you about a favorite teaching strategy that sounded exciting, but when you tried it in your own class, it did not work for you and your students? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have been learning about teaching through your experiences with students. In other words, you have been experimenting with ways of teaching, using observations of your students and their learning to draw inferences, make generalizations, and develop your own model of teaching and learning. Teaching is much more difficult than most faculty are willing to acknowledge:

''The assumption that knowledge of a subject implies the ability to teach in that field permeates American higher education, and one result is that our colleagues generally believe that the problems associated with teaching should disappear as the competent scholar eases past the initial nervousness" (Fraher, 1984).

For those interested in going beyond their own experiences, the science education literature provides ideas and information about teaching and learning. Appendices A and B provide a list of organizations that can be contacted for information and journals which can serve as an introduction to this body of scholarship. The successful strategies used by science faculty in many different disciplines are a good source of ideas to adapt for your own classes. Meetings of professional societies often include workshops on teaching in a given discipline. In addition, experts in science education research publish their work in peer-reviewed journals; those of you seeking evidence that a



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1 How Teachers Teach: General Principles How to develop a teaching style that is best suited to your course goals and students' needs. How to plan a course syllabus that will maximize your students' learning. What research tells us about effective teaching. Have you ever observed your students struggling with a particular concept, then revised your presentation of that material the next semester? Have you ever concluded that the only way to reach some students is with a specific strategy, such as using demonstrations or requiring written assignments? Has someone ever told you about a favorite teaching strategy that sounded exciting, but when you tried it in your own class, it did not work for you and your students? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have been learning about teaching through your experiences with students. In other words, you have been experimenting with ways of teaching, using observations of your students and their learning to draw inferences, make generalizations, and develop your own model of teaching and learning. Teaching is much more difficult than most faculty are willing to acknowledge: ''The assumption that knowledge of a subject implies the ability to teach in that field permeates American higher education, and one result is that our colleagues generally believe that the problems associated with teaching should disappear as the competent scholar eases past the initial nervousness" (Fraher, 1984). For those interested in going beyond their own experiences, the science education literature provides ideas and information about teaching and learning. Appendices A and B provide a list of organizations that can be contacted for information and journals which can serve as an introduction to this body of scholarship. The successful strategies used by science faculty in many different disciplines are a good source of ideas to adapt for your own classes. Meetings of professional societies often include workshops on teaching in a given discipline. In addition, experts in science education research publish their work in peer-reviewed journals; those of you seeking evidence that a

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particular method is effective may find these articles helpful. There are also books on the art of teaching in a specific discipline (Arons, 1990; Herron, 1996). The objective of Chapter 1 and 2 is to acquaint you with the general principles and results of science education research and to provide examples of how these results have been translated into classroom practice so that you can improve your teaching as efficiently as possible. TEACHING AND LEARNING Teaching and learning should be inseparable, in that learning is a criterion and product of effective teaching. In essence, learning is the goal of teaching. Someone has not taught unless someone else has learned. After a few years of teaching, many faculty realize that students learn too little of what they teach. Science teaching requires attention to both the content of the course and the process of moving students from their initial state of knowledge and understanding to the desired level. In fact, teaching is part of a whole that comprises the teacher, the learner, the disciplinary content, the teaching/learning process, and the evaluation of both the teacher and the learner. Undergraduate students value good teaching, and many of those who switch from a science major to another field cite poor teaching as an important factor in their decision (Seymour and Hewitt, 1994). When the data from students who persist in a science major was combined with data from students who switched out of a science major, poor teaching by science faculty was the students' most frequently cited concern. Although students are turned off by poor teaching, they also have identified characteristics of good teaching: a teacher's enthusiasm and passion for the subject, rapport between a teacher and a student or group of students during discussions in and out of class, intellectual challenges from a teacher, clarity and organization in presenting analytical and conceptual understanding of ideas, and a teacher's scholarship. Teaching Styles Research indicates that teachers teach in a manner consistent with their own way of learning (Shulman, 1990; Tobin et al., 1994). However, it is not necessarily true that student learning can be understood from the teachers' own learning history. What is your style of learning? Do you learn most easily if material is presented to you in a formal and structured manner, or do you learn most easily if you are forced to discover basic principles from a series of exercises and examples? Do you believe that your students will learn best if you use a teaching style that helped you learn as a student? Studies of teaching and learning have led to classification of teaching styles into three general categories: discipline-centered, instructor-centered, and student-centered (Dressel and Marcus, 1982; Woods, 1995). In discipline-centered teaching, the course has a fixed structure. The needs, concerns, and requirements of teacher and student are not considered because the course is driven by and depends mainly on the disciplinary content that must be presented. The teacher transmits information, but the

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content is dictated by some separate authority such as a department syllabus committee or textbook author. The teacher acts as a model of the educated person in instructor-centered teaching. He or she is regarded as the authoritative expert, the main source of knowledge, and the focal point of all activity. The student is the passive recipient of the information already acquired by the teacher. The teacher selects from the discipline the information to be taught, studied, and learned. Student-centered teaching focuses on the student and, in particular, on the cognitive development of the student. The teacher's goal is to help students grasp the development of knowledge as a process rather than a product. The focus of classroom activities and assignments is on the student-centered process of inquiry itself, not on the products of inquiry. Students create their own conceptual or cognitive models. Content, teaching style, and methods are adapted to aid the cognitive and intellectual growth of students. Student-centered teaching combines an understanding of the way that humans process information with other factors that affect learning such as attitudes, values, beliefs, and motivation. Although there are many ways to teach effectively, all require that the teacher have knowledge of three things: 1) the material being taught; 2) the best instructional strategies to teach the material (see Chapter 2); and 3) how students learn (discussed more fully in Chapter 3). New faculty members typically know far more about the content of their discipline than they do about instructional strategies, and therefore tend to use teaching styles similar to those used by their own teachers (Shulman, 1990). In most cases, they use elements of all three general teaching styles. As the teacher gains experience, his or her teaching style is likely to change. What is the most effective way to teach students? The answer depends on what students are expected to learn. Students taught by lectures, instructor-centered presentations, and student-centered methods achieve similar results on tests that measure factual knowledge. However, student-centered discussions lead to better retention, better transfer of knowledge to other situations, better motivation for further learning, and better problem solving ability (McKeachie, 1994). Active participation by students helps them construct a better framework from which to generalize their knowledge. Developing a Teaching Style The first step in preparing to teach a particular course is to decide on a particular style of teaching that is compatible with and appropriate for your students and the goals of your course. It is likely that you will use a combination of the three teaching styles, depending on the circumstances of your course. While developing their own teaching style, science teachers must answer a fundamental question: Is the primary goal of my course for each student to gain specific information, or for each student to master how to organize and apply new information independently to new situations? The primary goal may not be the same for each student in a course, especially when the students come from diverse backgrounds (see Chapter 8). In courses that are the foundation for more advanced learning in a subject area, how should the

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content be organized and presented? Because science curricula tend to be vertically structured, students' content knowledge is critical for advancement in a field and for understanding the next level of information. In science courses for nonscience majors, how should the content be organized and presented? In any given course, we should ask what should be the balance between specific information, application of that information, and conceptual understanding of basic principles? If the course is truly to be a course for lawyers, citizens, teachers, and other nonscientists, it should provide some of the essence of what science is and the nature of the scientific enterprise. Most science courses, particularly introductory courses, emphasize discipline-centered teaching. Generations of students have been exposed to science as a subject in which the correct formulas and answers must be memorized, and the material is divided into many different and seemingly unrelated pieces. Problems with this approach have been exacerbated by the explosion of scientific information. Faculty members, wishing to cover the latest results and ideas but reluctant to discard classical material, rush to cover more and more information in the same amount of time. Collaborative Syllabus Design Often, multiple sections of an introductory course are taught by different faculty members. Some faculty members find it useful to meet with their colleagues to design a syllabus that optimizes the order and structure in which to present the course material. For example, if you are teaching atomic theory, is it best to start with basic terms and then to build up to a model, or to start with a model and disassemble it piece by piece? The first step in collaborative syllabus design is to meet with fellow faculty members who teach the same course to identify basic concepts. Then, separately, each teacher does an analysis of the critical variables related to each concept. Finally, the colleagues reassemble to compare their lists, identify similarities and differences, and discuss the implications of their lists for instruction. Those who have studied the learning of science have concluded that students learn best if they are engaged in active learning, if they are forced to deal with observations and concepts before terms and facts, and if they have the sense that they are part of a community of learners in a classroom environment that is very supportive of their learning (Fraser, 1986; Chickering and Gamson, 1987; McDermott et al., 1987; Fraser and Tobin, 1989; McDermott, 1991; McDermott et al., 1994; McKeachie, 1994; Tobin et al., 1994). Instructor-centered and student-centered teaching are more effective than is discipline-centered teaching for students to learn in this way. When the focus is on meaning rather than solely on facts, students develop their conceptual abilities. They assimilate information by incorporating new concepts or by using information to differentiate among already existing concepts. This is not necessarily at the expense of their development of algorithmic abilities, because conceptual understanding gives a context for the application of problem solving methods. A student-centered style is more likely to motivate students by engaging their interest. Several factors can influence your choice of teaching style: student needs (future course and career requirements, preparation for participatory citizenship, and preparation for careers in science, engineering, technology, or education), student background (preconceptions and misconceptions; see Chapter 4), familiarity with various teaching methods, course enrollment (size, students with special needs, the logistics of managing small group activities), student learning styles, teaching load (number of contact hours, office hours, time for preparation and grading), other responsibilities (research, committee work, administrative duties), support structures (equipment cost, teaching and demonstration assistants),

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facilities (laboratory equipment and computers, classroom and laboratory space, and demonstration equipment), and parallel sections that require some uniformity of coverage and examination. In some circumstances, teachers must use methods that emphasize the imparting and acquiring of basic information and skills. Time constraints, class size, or course goals may lead to an emphasis on factual knowledge at the expense of developing a conceptual framework. Students are usually encouraged to accept facts from some authority (e.g., the instructor or the text) without questioning. If all their learning is rote learning, however, students seldom associate the new facts with concepts or models already part of their pictures of the world (A Private Universe, 1989). Chapter Two presents some methods teachers can use to promote active learning in a lecture setting. What can be done about the many options, goals, and competing pressures? Current practice is not to prescribe one teaching style as best for a given course or type of student. Various methods for engaging students are applied successfully in a wide range of institutional settings. Some of these methods are discussed in more detail in the next chapter, and references to others are given to help you make an informed choice of style. HOW SHOULD YOU PLAN A COURSE SYLLABUS? How teachers teach is influenced to a great degree by what they teach and by how their courses are organized. The usual focus in organizing a course is the content. A syllabus typically includes the organization of topics into an outline of the course of study, readings, exercises, examinations, and grading scheme. These features are important, but it is equally important to identify the goals of the course (content, student responsibilities, and desired outcomes) and to work both forward (from the starting point of the Connecting Science to the Social Sciences Daniel D. Perlmutter of the University of Pennsylvania has developed a course called "Perspectives on Energy and the Environment." The goal of this course, which was taught for the first time in the 1994-1995 school year, is to provide nonscience majors with a quantitative understanding of science and technology. The course fulfills the University's Physical Science requirement and is open to students who are not science, math, or engineering majors. It emphasizes applications to current energy and environmental issues and focuses on techniques and approaches to problem solving. Men and women who do not have professional interests in science and engineering still need to become informed in these areas in order to function effectively in a complex world. This course approaches the matter of technical literacy from the point of view of a curious and motivated newspaper reader, for whom reports are available on a daily basis that provide a mix of engineering and public policy issues. The material draws heavily upon information from recent news reports on subjects having to do with energy or environmental matters. In each case the technical and policy issues are summarized and where appropriate brief calculations check the assertions of the reporter or experts cited in the article. Having seen such examples, the student will be sensitized to the relevant scientific questions that bear on an issue, and may recognize how technical limitations on what is or is not possible can form bases for preliminary judgments on the merits of a controversy. Most important of all, when information is lacking for a full assessment to be made, the student will have a framework for asking appropriate questions that can serve to elicit the necessary additional details.

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students) and backward (from the desired outcome of student understanding) to develop your syllabus. Student behaviors such as developing abilities to work in groups might also be included. Research on how students learn science offers three fundamental guidelines for course design (Novak and Gowin, 1984): Become aware of the students' prior knowledge and take it into account (see also Chapters 3 and 4). Identify the major and minor concepts and the connections between different concepts. Relate new information to a context the student understands. Along with repetition and application, these relationships are extremely important for student retention of the material. To achieve these goals, a syllabus might include the following (Novak, 1977; Davis, 1993): overview of the course's purpose, including a rationale for why students should learn the material, the learning goals or objectives (what students should know or be able to do after completing the course), the conceptual structure used to organize the course, the important topics covered by the course, sequencing of topics so that major concepts are introduced early and can be reinforced through application to new situations, identification of the methods and accuracy of inquiry used to develop concepts and to identify the major information of the field, important knowledge, skills, or experience students need to succeed in the course, and evaluation and feedback strategies. A Multi-disciplinary Lab at Princeton University Professors: Rosemary Grant, Maitland Jones, Shirley Tilghman, and David Wilkinson Enrollment: 30-50 students "Origins and Beginnings" is a year-long course intended for students who may take no other science courses in college. Some fundamental ideas from physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and evolutionary biology are developed around questions associated with origins of life and origins of the human condition. The course is designed to engage students in the scientific process. During the first half of the term, students learn basic concepts and practice a few prescribed laboratory techniques. In the second half of the term, groups of two or three students do research projects chosen from a list of topics. Equipment and materials are supplied, but the students plan and execute the experiment and analyze the results, all with the guidance of an instructor. Instructors emphasize that understanding the results is more important than whether the results are "correct." For example, the physicals chemistry term introduces students to optical and infrared spectroscopy, computer modeling of molecular structure, and some wet lab techniques used in organic chemistry. Lectures, readings, and class discussion show how these techniques are used to study the molecular and environmental bases of life. Topics for student research projects include: Spectra of Light Reflected from Planets, the Solar Spectrum, Green House Gases, Pasteur's Experiment, Polycyclic Hydrocarbons, Computer-Generated Models, Constituents of Vegetables, and Bard's Experiment (making life's molecules in a bottle). Open-ended problems are chosen so that students have an opportunity to be creative and to try their own ideas.

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HOW CAN I BROADEN THE CONTENT IN MY COURSE? Science should be considered as intrinsically multi-disciplinary. Student learning is enhanced when we are able to help students see the relationships among the sciences, and between science and mathematics, the humanities, social sciences, and the arts. Organizing courses around themes, issues, or projects not only can broaden student thinking and problem solving abilities, but also can enrich the students' view of science as a multi faceted enterprise. SHOULD YOU TEACH DIFFERENTLY TO FUTURE PRECOLLEGE TEACHERS? Many lament the quality of science education for children in elementary, middle, and high schools, yet all precollege teachers were once under graduates, and almost all teachers took introductory science classes to learn about the science they now must teach. Some even have argued that one of the main causes of the crisis in science education is the failure of colleges and universities to do an adequate job of preparing future science teachers (McDermott, 1990). The heart of the matter is this: improving undergraduate science education has a direct, positive effect on precollege education. An undergraduate science teacher who models real scientific skills of investigation and critical thinking, and applies those skills to new situations, can make an enormous contribution to the education of those students who will not only use the model, but eventually will teach it. Should we teach present or future teachers differently from other students in our science classes? Most teachers of undergraduates have students in their classes who will need to share scientific understanding and skills with others, perhaps as a trial lawyer or a track coach, or as a member of a citizen's action group. Some of your students will likely become science teachers at the elementary level and have the opportunity to introduce curious children to important scientific concepts. Others may become secondary science teachers with responsibility for teaching advanced courses for college-bound students. Those who have studied science teaching are divided over how best to teach future science teachers. Some argue that future teachers need distinctly different instruction that is more hands-on, active, and problem oriented than what a future scientist might need. Others argue that future teachers need the same type of instruction as scientists; in other words, the future teacher should be treated like a future scientist while learning. Faculty members who are concerned about the preparation of K-12 teachers may want to meet with their colleagues in departments of education to discuss possible collaborative efforts. This issue is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Nevertheless, a vision of effective science teaching at the K-12 level has been analyzed and presented in a number of recent reform documents. These include Science for All Americans (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990b), The Content Core (National Science Teachers Association, 1992), Benchmarks for Science Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993), and The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). These reports can be helpful to undergraduate science teachers who are concerned about how best to assist future K-12 teachers to become as effective as possible. One overarching theme in all of these reform efforts is the recognition of a need to teach in a manner that engages students in using complex reasoning in authentic contexts.

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