Everyone says you should thank a teacher. I can think easily back to the teachers that made a difference to me, just like you can. But how did those teachers learn their trade? How do we know they did the best possible? Where’s the test? Where’s the research? How do we become the best possible teachers? This was the topic of Peggy Brickman‘s presentation in Biology today.
She focuses on large courses in biology that teach close to a thousand students at a time. She calls the courses “general education,” something I suppose is more common at state universities. They are for students not majoring in biology, who might well not be majoring in science at all. Therefore, the first goal is to decide what to teach them. Peggy wants them to understand what a scientific truth is. If they get this, they can judge a lot of material for themselves. They can read the Tuesday New York Times science section. They understand what a graph shows. They can distinguish a good source from a poor one. And I also hope they learn to love science, its clarity, its novelty, its wonder.
There are lots of ways of teaching, from the traditional lecture-test to project and team-work oriented approaches. In the hands of a caring, inspired teacher, many different ways of teaching have the students remembering fondly for the rest of their lives. But what are they remembering? The committed teacher that saw to it they did their best? Exactly how the Krebs Cycle works? Exactly when they met their husband in chemistry class? Peggy wants them to remember how to think like a scientist, to become an informed consumer that can sort the nonsense from the truth. She wants us to evaluate our teaching, not just do it.
We use tests to evaluate what our students learn. We give some of them high grades and others low grades. But these tests do not really tell us what they will remember, or what we have added to their knowledge. To do that you have to give a test before and after the teaching opportunity. The test may need to be more process-based than content-based. If the classes are huge, the test should probably be multiple choice questions, carefully chosen for accuracy. Remember, this is to evaluate the teaching process, not the student.
In the education lingo, these tests are called instruments. Good ones are hard to come by, so Peggy is developing a new one. It currently has 29 multiple choice questions. It is being evaluated through use in the classrooms of several different kinds of universities, including my own. It is being evaluated by experts in the field. It is also being compared to existing instruments. It tries to get at whether students can identify a valid scientific argument, whether they can do a good search of the literature, whether they understand experimental design, and whether they can recognize bias. The students in her class learn this material by evaluating claims in the popular press, mostly through projects. They synthesize what they have learned, make graphs, and write text.
This work is not being done in isolation. You can join in if you want to, through this website. They work with people like Diane Ebert May at Michigan State University, in my hometown. She is an expert in analyzing data on teaching, and a general guru on teaching evaluation, according to Peggy.
I do a lot of things in ways that are similar to what Peggy discussed. But I don’t methodically work towards this kind of scientific understanding. I expect my students to use good sources. They have to graph information. But most of all, I’m concerned that they learn to love science, by owning their work, by publicizing it, by teamwork. I want them to be able to point to their projects and how they have informed on a blog, or a Wikipedia entry. Of course, I also want them to understand animal behavior and evolution. But am I meeting my own goals? Without a valid instrument to test my methods, I can’t really say.
Erica Harris and Boahemaa Adu-Oppong are likely to have learned a lot in our research lab.
A great group of Rice undergrads from the last time I taught animal behavior, abut the 30th time. Did they learn everything I hoped? I’m optimistic, and hope to keep up with them forever, since I’m Facebook friends with them!