By Tim De Chant
While Ferris Bueller famously skipped economics (and many other classes) in his eponymous movie, many of us have endured similar torture in our science classes.
Undergraduate courses at large universities are often prone to such dry, lecture-driven debacles. Institutional realities are often at fault: The real teaching in introductory biology classes—500 strong but 200 in attendance—does not take place in the lecture hall, but rather in smaller sections and labs taught by graduate students. Yet these teaching assistants are seldom properly prepared. Undergraduates suffer as a result, turning into parrots adept at recitation but inept at critical thinking.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of many poster children for teaching woes at large universities. With nearly 30,000 undergraduates, introductory classes can be staggeringly large, a situation that does little to facilitate valuable student-instructor interaction. Hoping to chip away at the problem, four professors at Wisconsin started the Teaching Fellows Program in 2003 to prepare graduate students for their teaching appointments in the sciences. The program, though small, has been successful enough to warrant publication in the Friday edition of the journal Science.
For years, experts have encouraged universities to provide teaching assistants with pedagogy courses. But for nearly as many years, universities have been hesitant to either provide or require such preparation. Perhaps, the papers’ authors seem to suggest, universities are unwilling to pony up the cash to fund the courses until their efficacy is proven.
The four Wisconsin professors placed the Teaching Fellows Program under the microscope, examining 44 of the 63 fellows who have participated in the program. The papers’ authors poured over the curricula, videos, teaching statements, and educational materials that the participants developed as a part of the course. Their findings give hope to high school seniors dreading the collegiate transition.
Fellows in the program developed more engaging, interactive curricula. Over two-thirds of the units involved what the authors call “active learning”–small group discussions, case study analysis, and so on. And even more heartening, 76% of the units were geared toward scientific discovery. Come test time, recitation just wouldn’t cut it.
Yet college-level science education is not out of the woods. Since the Teaching Fellows Program began five years ago, the 63 participants have only taught 1,900 undergraduates. Thousands more remain tethered to the old system. And while fellows’ curricula stressed involvement in the scientific process, none included accommodations for disabled students.
The largest hurdle for undergraduate science education, though, may still lie at the administrative level. Experts have pushed for required pedagogy courses, but little headway has been made. While the paper does not point fingers, I think that as long as funds for improving teaching remains tight, undergraduate education at large universities may lag accordingly.