Introductory Science Courses: Generating Interest in Students

Ian Zangs

The interaction of students’ learning styles and the model of instruction within institutions of higher education is a subject of great debate. This debate could not be more relevant to addressing student interest in science. Keeping students interested in the disciplines of science is important for developing new technologies and solutions for a wide variety of problems. Introductory science courses are especially important, as they are the gateway for students into the different fields of science. To explain why so many students shy away from the sciences, Richard Feller outlines common institutional failures to motivate and engage students, citing existing teaching methods and their inability to address different student learning styles (286). This inability for these students to connect with the material can discourage the students from remaining interested. Therefore, institutions need to better understand how the nature of classroom experiences influence students’ engagement in scientific learning, if they want to more fully engage students who become disinterested in science.

When looking at methods of teaching, it is important to note that different students learn in different ways. Students have their own conceptions of learning that influence how they approach learning in different situations. Richardson elaborates on these conceptions of learning. He argues that basic conceptions of learning, such as learning as the increase of knowledge or as memorizing facts, result in a surface approach to studying, while more sophisticated conceptions of learning, such as learning as the abstraction of meaning, result in a deep approach (290). These conceptions of learning manifest themselves in several ways in the classroom, affecting the quality of students’ learning experience. A student with a surface approach is more likely to learn in a superficial way that lacks the depth necessary to relate what they learned to the world around them. Students with a deep approach attempt to understand the meaning of the information they are learning and how it relates to things they have learned before (Richardson 301). Having this kind of understanding will generate more interest in the subject for the student, and encourages them to explore the subject more.

If a deep-approach encourages a better understanding and subsequently generates interest, then it is important to see what role the teacher plays in engaging students and the problems they may encounter when trying to design the curriculum for these introductory courses. The breadth of the different scientific fields has led to a large number of standards that dictate what the course must cover in order to prepare students for subsequent science courses (Kohn 7). This creates a problem for the professor who must address both the students’ different conceptions of learning and the huge breadth of material. Many introductory science courses are still taught with traditional lectures, where the teacher talks and the students frantically take notes. This style of teaching relies on the student being able to make the same connections that the professor makes, and sometimes leaves them to connect the different facts and ideas for themselves (Kohn 9). Students are then graded according to how well they are able to reproduce these connections. Students with different approaches are not going to be able to connect these facts in the same way. This shows the problem with this style of teaching, as it does not account for students’ different conceptions of learning (Kohn 6). It is possible that because the traditional lecture- based curriculum does not match well with different students’ styles of learning, and it may become a disincentive for students to remain interested.

The competition for grades in college often adds to the students’ troubles. Kohn points to several studies that suggest when students know they are going to be evaluated on a task they tend to choose the simplest version of the task. These studies also have shown that when the students, given the same task, are told it is an “opportunity to learn,” (i.e. the emphasis is not on performance) they were more willing to try more difficult tasks (3). With the emphasis on performance in college, students having difficulty understanding the course material may be more likely to gravitate towards whatever they can most readily understand. Because of this, they may never really be able to acquire a deeper understanding of more difficult concepts, and become disengaged and discouraged by the course. If lecture-based curricula and emphasis on performance are factors that are hindering students from gaining a deeper understanding of the material, then there needs to be reconciliation between the curriculum and the evaluation of the student. Newer problem-based learning curricula have emerged as a viable solution to this problem. These curricula are often structured around fewer lectures, which are more comprehensive in nature, and small discussion groups, in which students discuss the course material in depth and work together to solve different problems. These methods have been shown to be successful in an academic setting. This has been confirmed in research performed by Stacy Klein and Robert Sherwood, who tested their own version of a problem-based learning curriculum. Through this method, called the Legacy Cycle, they taught students different science fields, such as physics, through specific problems in Biomedical engineering. The curriculum revolves around presenting students a challenge, in the form of a question that involves the topic of biomedical engineering. It allows students to try out different ideas, research how they may attempt to solve the problem, and then test themselves on how well they are able to eventually answer the challenge question (385). Klein and Sherwood concluded from the results of the experiment that this style of curriculum resulted in greater growth in understanding of the basic concepts being taught by the course (392). This greater growth shows that the curriculum helps students think of the material in a way that reflects a more deep approach to studying that is essential to higher education.

Another benefit of making the curriculum more directed and broken into smaller parts is that it allows the student to work towards more manageable goals, reducing the emphasis on performance (Koning et. al, 321). By removing the ambiguity of the learning tasks it gives the student a better understanding of what is expected of them. It also allows the teacher to observe how students are trying to solve problems and gives them a chance to intervene when they see a student who is struggling to understand (321). This method takes pressure off both the teacher and students: by giving more direction in the students’ studies, and by giving teachers a better way to understand where their students are having trouble, and provide more meaningful feedback. Most importantly for students, however, this method can make learning a less confusing and arduous a task, which gives them room to explore their interest in the subject.

Higher education, like any other form of education, is a process. It is important for students taking a course to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it relates to the world around them. Students who drop out of a science degree program often aren’t able to identify with these aspects of the lecture-based curriculum, employed in many of higher-education institutions today. It does not reflect a failure of the student as much as a need in higher education to better express to the student the meaning of what is being learned. The goal moving forward for these courses will be to better convey the meaning of the different aspects and disciplines of the sciences. By doing this, perhaps more students will come to appreciate the sciences and pursue them as a life interest in order to enhance the quality of society.

Works Cited

Felder, Richard, “Reaching the Second Tier: Learning and Teaching Styles in College Science Education.” College Science Teaching, (1993). 286-2890. Print.

Klein, Stacy S., and Robert D. Sherwood. “Biomedical Engineering and Cognitive Science as the Basis for Secondary Science Curriculum Development: A Three Year Study.” School Science and Mathematics 105.8 (2005): 384-401. Print.

Kohn, Alfie. “Getting Teaching Right and Learning Wrong.” The Schools Our Children Deserve. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 7-17. Print.

—., “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.” The Schools Our Children Deserve. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. 1-6. Print.

Koning, Bjorn B. De, Sofie M.M. Loyens, Remy M.J.P. Rikers, Guus Smeets, and Henk T. VanDer Molen. “Generation Psy: Student Characteristics and Academic Achievement in a Three-year Problem- Based Learning Bachelor Program.” Learning and Individual Differences 22 (2012): 313-23. Web.

Richardson, John T.E. “Approaches to Studying, Conceptions of Learning and Learning Styles in Higher Education.” Learning and Individual Differences 21.3 (2011): 288-93. Web.

—., “Meaning Orientation and Reproducing Orientation: A Typology of Approaches to Studying in Higher Education?” Educational Psychology, 17.3 (1997): 301-311.

Interview with the Writer

Q: What sparked your interest in this topic?

A: What sparked my interest was something that always struck me as odd. I’m one of only two people from my high school to go to this school. The other was here before me. That’s not so weird; I went to a high school in Minnesota, but then my high school—right around 50% graduated and even less went to college. This paper is about students who struggle in introductory science courses, and I just remember how much people hated taking science courses in high school. I found an article about the relationship between student learning styles and how well they take to certain sciences. And how the way introductory science courses are taught catered to specific learning styles. I translated the high school experience to my college experience. It’s close to me because I’ve taken about eight or nine introductory science courses in my time at Madison because I’ve spent some time deciding what I wanted to do, and I’ve had a range of frustrations with those classes. . . . I was able to use some of what I’ve learned in other classes too. I’m a psych major, so studies of cognition and learning styles — those were familiar to me.

Q: What was most helpful to you as you wrote this paper?

A: Getting into the research. Coming into college, I could barely write the 5-page paper. But after writing this, I felt like, ‘I can do this.’ I did the research before I started writing and had all the ideas mapped out in my head. I know that’s what you’re supposed to do, but I didn’t always do that. I put a lot of time into it. It worked out that it was something I could get into that was personal, close, and at the same time, it was an assignment for a class . . . And during class discussion, when we were able to discuss different ideas about an issue and think about arguments different writers make . . . All that debate was helpful. I learned that you have to put one idea next to the other and work them out. Decide where you are going as a writer so that you can say how one argument is better than the other. Sometimes, you get writer’s block and you sit there. I think I had this thing up to 10 pages. Half of it was just junk. Extra parts of ideas, things not completely fleshed out. The nice thing is you get rid of the filter and you dump it all out, and it’s there. At least you have 10 pages to work with instead of sitting there with only a page, trying to write the perfect paper from the start.

Q: Was that process of allowing yourself to write a bad first draft new for you?

A: Yeah, I think it was. The last big paper I had to write in high school, I didn’t really do very good research beforehand, and when I sat down to write it, I tried to write the perfect paper from the start. . . . I think that those two things are really important: knowing exactly what you’re going to talk about before you talk about it, and getting it all out there. Don’t stop yourself; it’s part of the process. It’s not that hard. You really could sit and brain dump for four hours and it’s there. You got something to work with.

Q: Do you have any advice for other English 100 students?

A: Get into the research. The more familiar you are with it, the easier it’s going to be to think about it. I think that’s one thing that bums people out about writing papers. It seems challenging to think about some complex issues. But it shouldn’t be like that. Don’t put yourself into a situation where you are loathing every moment you are working on it. Because anything—once you get past the annoying part of learning terms, the basics of learning something new—anything can be interesting. That’s the biggest thing. Zone in on something that you know you are going to like, something you know you can relate to. Don’t just pick a topic because it looks easy. Everybody makes that choice on a daily basis. It’s natural to gravitate toward something easier, but if you’re not interested, it will be a chore to do. If you’re not into it though, you won’t be getting anything out of it.

Student Writing Award Honorable Mention: Critical Essay