Teaching STEM at university is most of the time still giving lectures

There is a new study which consists of an analysis of more than 2,000 college classes in science, technology, engineering and math. What this study published in Science has found is that 55 percent of STEM classroom interactions consisted mostly of conventional lecturing.Another 27 percent featured interactive lectures that had students participating in some group activities or answering multiple-choice questions with handheld clickers. But well, that is again a form of lecture. Only 18 procent was labeled by the authors as student-centered. This contradicts earlier studies, but there is an easy explanation says the press release:

Much of the previous research into STEM instruction has relied on surveying faculty about their practices. Though the resulting data has proven valuable, Stains said, the flaws of human memory and perception inevitably find their way into that data.

“Surveys and self-reports are useful to get people’s perceptions of what they are doing,” she said. “If you ask me about how I teach, I might tell you, ‘I spend 50 percent of my class having students talk to each other.’ But when you actually come to my class and observe, you may find that it’s more like 30 percent. Our perception is not always accurate.”

So the research team decided to monitor STEM classroom practices with a commonly used protocol that involved documenting many types of student and instructor behavior during every two-minute interval throughout a class. An analysis that accounted for the prevalence of those behaviors allowed the team to identify seven instructional profiles, which were then categorized into three broad teaching styles.

Those efforts also led to the development of an app that runs essentially the same analyses conducted in the study.

“People can do their own measurements and see how they compare to this large dataset — see how either their department or college is doing — and say, ‘This is where we stand. This is where we want to go.'”

In the meantime, the study’s scale and interdisciplinary nature make it a “reliable snapshot” of how STEM gets taught to undergraduate students in North America, its authors said.

The researchers with leading author Marilyne Stains aren’t really pleased with this result and plea for a more student-centered approach. I’m a bit reluctant to follow this lead. It is true that lecturing can most of the time be rather cost-effective than learning-effective. I do think the cost-effectiveness is an important reason why lectures are still very popular. But at the same time a broad categorization as ‘student-centered’ used in this study can also include approaches who are not necessarily effective. I do subscribe to the plea for a more evidence-based approach, or even better an evidence-informed approach.

Abstract of the study:

A large body of evidence demonstrates that strategies that promote student interactions and cognitively engage students with content (1) lead to gains in learning and attitudinal outcomes for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses (12). Many educational and governmental bodies have called for and supported adoption of these student-centered strategies throughout the undergraduate STEM curriculum. But to the extent that we have pictures of the STEM undergraduate instructional landscape, it has mostly been provided through self-report surveys of faculty members, within a particular STEM discipline [e.g., (36)]. Such surveys are prone to reliability threats and can underestimate the complexity of classroom environments, and few are implemented nationally to provide valid and reliable data (7). Reflecting the limited state of these data, a report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine called for improved data collection to understand the use of evidence-based instructional practices (8). We report here a major step toward a characterization of STEM teaching practices in North American universities based on classroom observations from over 2000 classes taught by more than 500 STEM faculty members across 25 institutions.

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