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Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook (1997)

Chapter: Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
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3
Linking Teaching with Learning

  • Scientific research as a model of learning and teaching

  • Active learning and active teaching

Understanding how students learn can help us develop teaching methods that lead to improvements in students' learning. If our goal is to help our students develop an understanding of science concepts and the scientific enterprise, we need to facilitate students' active involvement in their own learning. As you read this chapter, reflect on your own teaching and think about these questions: What is meant by "active?" How can science inquiry provide a model of effective teaching? What are the basic elements of active teaching and active learning? This chapter presents some practical ideas and methods based on research into human learning. The sidebar at the end of the chapter suggests some additional reading for those who wish to know more than we present here.

A FRAMEWORK FOR LEARNING

Traditionally, college teachers have assumed that students learn through lectures, assigned readings, problem sets, and lab work. Yet we have all been frustrated by the frequent failure of our students to learn basic concepts of science. Because of the pace and large-enrollments of many science courses, students are often not able to discuss and reflect on difficult material. Evidence is mounting that these traditional methods are less effective than we once thought in helping our students to develop an understanding of the science concepts that we are teaching (Pearsall, 1992).

People use their experiences to build mental frameworks that help them make sense of the world. Then, when they encounter a strange event or phenomenon, they use these mental frameworks to interpret the information, to make generalizations or to make predictions. The familiar, "Ah ha! Now I get it!" reflects students' active wrestling with a new idea and successful adaptation or modification of mental frameworks. Students, then, are not like blank slates or sponges ready to absorb knowledge. Nor is student performance simply a result of innate ability or of rich experiences, although both affect learning. Rather, experience and knowledge already

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×

Introduction to Physics at Harvard University

Professor: Eric Mazur

Enrollment: Approximately 250 students

In 1989, I read an article in the American Journal of Physics that contained a test to assess understanding of Newtonian mechanics. I gave the test to my students at Harvard and was shocked by the results-the students had merely memorized equations and problem solving procedures and were unable to answer basic questions, indicating a substantial lack of understanding of the material. I began to rethink how I was teaching and realized that students were deriving little benefit from my lectures, even though they generally gave me high marks as a lecturer. So I decided to stop preaching and instead of teaching by telling, I switched to teaching by questioning using a teaching technique I have named "peer instruction."

My students now read the material before class. To get them to do the reading, I begin each class with a short reading quiz. The lecture periods are then broken down into a series of digestible snippets of 10 to 15 minutes. Rather than regurgitating the text, I concentrate on the basic concepts and every 10 or 15 minutes I project a "Concept Test" on the screen. These short conceptual questions generally require qualitative rather than quantitative answers. The students get one minute to think and choose an answer. they are also expected to record their confidence in their answer. After they record their answers, I ask the students to turn to their neighbors and to convince them of their logic. Chaos erupts as students engage in lively and usually uninhibited discussions of the question. I run up and down the aisles to participate in some of the discussions-to find out how students explain the correct answer in their own words and to find out what mistakes they make.

After one or two minutes, I call time and ask students to record a revised answer and a revised confidence level. A show of hands then quickly reveals the percentage of correct answers. After the discussion, the number of correct answers and the confidence level typically rise dramatically. if I am not satisfied, I repeat the cycle with another question on the same subject. When the results indicate mistakes they make.

I have been lecturing like this now for more than four years. During this time the students have taught how best to teach them. As for the students, nothing clarifies their ideas as much as explaining them to others. As one student said in a recent interview: "there is this ah-hah! kind of feeling. Its not that someone just told me; I actually figured it out. And because I can figure it out now, that means I can figure it out on the exam. And I can figure it out for the rest of my life."

acquired affect how students interpret and apply information in new situations (Brooks and Brooks, 1993; Glynn and Duit, 1995).

APPROACHES TO LEARNING

Approaches to and attitudes toward learning vary substantially (Craik and Lockhart, 1972; Witkin and Goodenough, 1981; Koballa, 1995). A student's primary learning style determines how he or she perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment (Claxton and Murrell, 1987; National Center for Improving Science Education, 1991). Thus, teaching methods effective for some students may be ineffective for others. Some students may prefer to have information presented both verbally and graphically, or presented sequentially or hierarchically. Many students learn best through hands-on or personal experience. Some students respond immediately to questions you pose in class while others reflect on possible answers before venturing a response. Some students seem to learn effectively from lectures, while others prefer reading the same material (Tobias, 1992).

Learning is enhanced when we create a classroom environment that provides students with opportunities to learn in several ways. We might, for example, use a graphical display (visual cue) to enhance a lecture (auditory cue). In a genetics lab, we might have students use materials (tactile cue) to

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×

make models of DNA. Students might be asked to ride carts around a circular track (kinesthetic cue) to complement vectorial notions of angular momentum.

Whatever the similarities and differences in learning styles and intelligences among our students, we can help all of our students by employing a range of active learning approaches (talking and listening, writing, reading, reflecting) and varied teaching techniques and strategies (such as lectures, videos, demonstrations, discovery labs, collaborative groups, independent projects). Moreover, by using a variety of teaching techniques, we can help students make sense of the world in different ways, increasing the likelihood that they will develop conceptual understanding.

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AS A TEACHING AND LEARNING MODEL

Moore (1984) has described science as a ''way of knowing," specifically a method that involves disciplined inquiry in the creation of new knowledge. Inquiry—natural way in which scientists create new knowledge, present it for peer review, and try it out in new settings—provide a model for how college teaching can likewise become an active process. Scientists and engineers ask questions, and they search for answers by gathering, collating, and interpreting data, weighing risks and benefits, sharing proposed explanations and solutions, and then trying these new proposals out in different contexts. This may raise new questions, and so the process continues in cyclic fashion. Science teaching is often most effective when it captures methods of thinking that scientists use when exploring the world. Successful learning is a complex process that involves more than manipulating symbols or numbers and executing instructions in the laboratory. The activity of finding out can be as important as knowing the answer.

Scientific research involves active investigation of the natural world and social interaction with members of the scientific community. Scientific debates are eventually resolved because the community agrees on what constitutes acceptable evidence, as well as protocols for interpreting that evidence. Similarly, science learning must be an interactive process in which students become engaged with scientific phenomena and debate with both peers and instructors in order to develop a full understanding of related phenomena and underlying concepts. When we teach science only as a set of truths, we run the risk of subverting our students' attempts to grapple with problems and make new experiences meaningful. We deny them the opportunity to engage in the scientific process.

While science understanding comes through an individual's personal efforts at making sense of the world around him or her, not all knowledge can come through individual discovery. Indeed, a good deal of our science knowledge must come from lectures, texts, and original sources. How might you, as a teacher, make better use of traditional formats to help your students gain knowledge and understanding? The sections that follow provide a sequence for teaching and learning that incorporates four basic elements used by research scientists.

Engaging Students

Scientists embark upon a problem because they have had their curiosity piqued by a strange event or a puzzling question or some other occurrence that causes them to wonder and resolve the apparent discrepancy between

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×

what they know and what they are experiencing. Similarly, instructors can help students become active learners by motivating them with open-ended questions, puzzles, and paradoxes. What happens when. . . ? Why does that happen? But how can that be, when we know that. . . ?

Thinking Aloud Pair Problem Solving (TAPPS)

A technique called "thinking aloud pair problem solving" (TAPPS) can help students apply difficult concepts. One student of the pair attempts to solve a problem while the other listens and tries to clarify what is being said. Thinking aloud works because it makes students aware of their thought processes as they solve problems; it also helps them quickly see when they make errors or turn into blind alleys (Whimbey, 1986).

Full integration of new knowledge is enhanced by time to reflect. Reflection is especially beneficial immediately following the presentation of new, challenging material. One effective method (Rowe, 1974) is to provide, after ten minutes of lecturing, short periods (a minute or two) for students to think. The necessary structure can be provided by a pertinent question.

Posing Questions about Reading Assignments

Many introductory science texts contain discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Some faculty ask students to consider these questions while they read the chapter, rather than when they have finished it, in order to focus on key ideas. Although some of the questions simply require students to locate factual information, those which go beyond basic definitions (e.g., "Where do you run into this term in your everyday experience?") or which ask the student to think critically about the factual information (e.g., "What does it mean to say the periodic table was useful because it 'worked'? How does this relate to the scientific method?") are better suited for use as the student reads the chapter.

Questions: Trefil and Hazen, 1995.

An alternative to asking questions is to ask students to summarize some important ideas from a previous discussion or the reading assignment. This focuses their attention and gives the teacher an opportunity to assess their level of understanding. Because students' disposition to learn can be influenced by the knowledge or mental frameworks they bring to class, assessing for prior knowledge is an essential component of teaching for active learning. As we shall see in the next chapter, students often approach learning situations with misconceptions or with prior knowledge that actually impedes learning. Students are most likely to change their beliefs if they first develop dissatisfaction with those beliefs and recognize possible alternatives as they prepare themselves to adopt a new, more acceptable view (Anderson and Roth, 1992; Minstrell, 1989; Posner et al., 1982; West and Pines, 1985). Stepans (1994) has summarized major physical science misconceptions and developed a suggested teaching sequence based on Posner's research for helping students con front these ideas. His model of teaching is parallel to the way scientists conduct research and how they resolve discrepancies between their current views and new information they are encountering.

Establishing a Context for Exploration

Just as a scientist explores various possibilities for resolving differences between the current view of a subject and new and contradictory information, so too does a teacher have to provide students with a chance to explore their ideas. This could be a laboratory experiment that helps students take the first step in finding answers to the questions posed in lecture or in class. Informal investigation, whether it occurs in the laboratory, in small group discussion sessions, or during a search of the World Wide Web, gives students firsthand exposure to inquiry.

Students need to talk with peers and their teacher in order to articulate what they have experienced during these explorations. Talking helps students work through their preliminary thoughts about a concept. Some structure and guidelines can help students find a forum to discuss and clarify their thinking. You might ask students to form small groups in order to work on problems and discuss major concepts, for example, those which relate to the lab experiment.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×

Learning to Write a Research Paper

A practical writing exercise for science majors in advanced courses is to write up an experiment as though they were submitting it to a professional journal. Students do the lab work in the usual way, up to the data collection. However, instead of writing a standard lab report or summary in their lab notebook, they are required to identify an appropriate journal and follow its rules for submission. Presentation of experimental data, figures, conclusions, and references must conform to the submission guidelines. Similar to journal submissions, students' papers may require several revisions before they are "published" (i.e., receive a final grade). You can use this reporting method to help students improve their writing and presentation skills as well as to think more deeply about one or more of their experiments. Although it is more work, students view the "paper" report as a valuable and practical experience.

Proposing Explanations

Having interested your students in describing and exploring some phenomena, you might provide opportunities for them to attempt explanations and synthesis. Again, you might use leading questions: Can anyone suggest, in your own words, an explanation for A? Does that idea also explain B? Can anyone think of a counterexample?

As teachers, we know that one of the best ways to learn something is to explain it to someone else. You can give your students this experience by asking them to write a short summary paper addressed to a non-scientist in which they attempt to clarify difficult concepts like mass, molecule, or homeostasis. This exercise helps students understand new concepts as they connect their current knowledge with recently learned information. Explanatory writing requires students to organize their thoughts as they plan how to explain something to a peer who is not familiar with the concept. As Meyers and Jones (1993) recognize, ". . . writing can be a powerful prod to the expansion, modification and creation of mental structures."

Reading and Writing for Understanding

Students can solidify their understanding of a science concept by applying their explanation in a new setting. This process helps students create new mental frameworks that lead to deeper understanding. Opportunities for reading and reflection can also help students incorporate new concepts. We know from studies of reading with secondary students that giving specific study questions before students start reading increases the likelihood that students will recall the information they read (Winograd and Newell, 1984). Thus, by giving explicit instructions for an assigned reading, you can increase what students comprehend in the reading.

There are a number of ways to encourage students to reflect on their learning by writing about it. Some college teachers have found that journals are a useful learning tool for college students. Students need not write every day, but frequent writing in which students reflect critically on a lecture, a lab, or a text assignment and integrate these components of a course helps them make sense of the complex conceptual ideas of science (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). In many ways, this process is similar to keeping a research notebook, in which you summarize and reflect critically on one or more completed experiments and begin to make connections between their outcomes.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×

Selected Resources on How Students Learn

This list is not comprehensive, but aims to provide a starting point for those seeking additional reading on this topic.

A fuller discussion of the active mind and the structured mind in learning:

Gelman, R. and M. G. Lee. 1995. Trends and Developments in Educational Psychology in the United States. New York: UNESCO.

A fuller discussion of how different representational systems are at work during learning:

Copple, C. E., I.E. Sigel, and R. Saunders. 1984. Educating the Young Thinker. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Interesting readings about the active processes of discovery among scientists as they engage in problem solving in their laboratories:

Dunbar, K. 1995. How scientists really reason: Scientific reasoning in real-world laboratories. In R. J. Stern and J. Davidson, eds. Mechanisms of Insight. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dunbar, K. 1996. How scientists think: On-line creativity and conceptual change in science. In T. B. Ward, S. M. Smith, and S. Vaid, eds. Conceptual Structures and Processes: Emergence, Discovery, and Change. Washington, D.C.: APA Press.

Building on the active learning work by Gelman and Lee cited earlier in this sidebar, this paper emphasizes discovery processes in which learners engage, and suggests ways that teachers can facilitate this kind of learning:

Schauble, L. 1996. The development of scientific reasoning in knowledge-rich contexts. Developmental Psychology 32:102-119.

For further reading on teacher-student collaboration in building knowledge frameworks:

Schauble, L., R. Glaser, R. A. Duschl, S. Schulze, and J. John. 1995. Students' understanding of the objectives and procedures of the experimentation in the science classroom. Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(2):131-166.

For further reading about building a community of learners:

Brown, A. L. 1994. The advancement of learning. Educational Researcher 23(8):4-12.

Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×
Page 21
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×
Page 22
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×
Page 23
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×
Page 24
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×
Page 25
Suggested Citation:"Chapter 3: Linking Teaching with Learning." National Research Council. 1997. Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5287.
×
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Effective science teaching requires creativity, imagination, and innovation. In light of concerns about American science literacy, scientists and educators have struggled to teach this discipline more effectively. Science Teaching Reconsidered provides undergraduate science educators with a path to understanding students, accommodating their individual differences, and helping them grasp the methods--and the wonder--of science.

What impact does teaching style have? How do I plan a course curriculum? How do I make lectures, classes, and laboratories more effective? How can I tell what students are thinking? Why don't they understand? This handbook provides productive approaches to these and other questions.

Written by scientists who are also educators, the handbook offers suggestions for having a greater impact in the classroom and provides resources for further research.

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