Every Learner Everywhere

Meaningful Pedagogical Transformation: Alternatives to the STEM Faculty Lecture-First Model

When I started college forty years ago, my enthusiasm to major in biology was inspired in part by a childhood of watching Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. For those who don’t remember when television only had three channels, the host of this pioneering nature show had a flat demeanor that couldn’t hide an underlying fascination with the natural world and love of teaching about it. Each episode featured dramatic footage of wildlife ranging from insects at work to apex predators and explained the work of the field scientists studying them.

You can probably guess what began to dent my enthusiasm in college when I tell you my first biology courses were in lecture halls of 200 students. I experienced the professor as a dot on a distant stage using a monotone voice, seemingly uninterested in engaging their audience. “Why are they standing up there boring me to tears?” I wondered. “Why isn’t this fascinating in the way I expected?”

More troubling, I also began to wonder if I was cut out for the work and if I should keep at it. The experience was nearly enough to weed me out of being a STEM major. Thankfully, I persevered, got to the more engaging parts of the biology curriculum (which is fascinating, by the way), and eventually became a professor and an academic dean.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just an anecdote about the bad old days. Today — this semester — students are sitting in gateway science courses in large lecture halls getting the sage-on-a-stage treatment. My professors used transparencies and today’s use PowerPoint decks, but otherwise the experience is virtually unchanged. Meanwhile, deans, department program committees, and individual faculty are developing schedules and syllabi for next semester using the lecture as their starting assumption.

Evidence-based teaching practices based on transparency, active learning, formative practice, data analytics, metacognition, and a sense of belonging are more effective at reaching every learner. But outdated pedagogy persists for many reasons, including structural, institutional, and financial factors beyond the control of faculty.

It also persists because of a resistance to change among faculty. The possible explanations for this have been argued many times among academics already. (i.e. territorialism, not-invented-here syndrome, endowment effect, “maintaining standards,” etc.).

The arguments for resisting change are reasonable in isolation, but they lose their validity for me when they are contrasted with the generations of students unnecessarily bounced out of STEM careers and when that impact falls disproportionately on minoritized, poverty-affected, first-generation, and women students. It is past time for academia to confront the fact that we know what does and doesn’t work for equitable learning and yet persist in not changing.

Fortunately, better teaching practices are sitting in plain sight if we are willing to learn from peers. At Every Learner Everywhere, every day we see and learn from examples of individual academic departments engaged in substantial pedagogical transformation to create success for their students.

Design for non-majors

Many gateway STEM courses are designed with two assumptions: that students in them are on a path to major in the core subject and that some should be strongly discouraged from that path. For example, it’s very common for calculus to be designed to weed out students before they get to advanced mathematics. This is a big contributor to high DFWI rates and to higher education’s systemic inequities.

Standing in the blast zone of that decision are students who aren’t going to need advanced math. Others are aspiring engineering majors who could have successful careers if they weren’t starting college with unproductive credits and the message that they aren’t capable of college work.

This approach also discourages non-STEM majors who will benefit from a grounding in STEM topics. Society needs people in business, communications, and other domains who have a good grasp of and interest in science and math. Gateway courses designed to bore or embarrass them are counterproductive.

One example of an approach more useful to non-majors is how UNC Charlotte redesigned gateway math courses into three tracks: statistics concepts that social science majors will use; quantitative concepts that humanities majors will benefit from; and an algebra-to-calculus pathway for STEM majors.

Another example is how Wright State University revised its math course for engineering majors to emphasize what would be most salient for those majors. It also incorporates hands-on applications and other evidence-based practices.

Focus on mastery

Busy faculty in STEM tend to start with the question of what to cover rather than on what students need to master. When we focus on mastery instead of coverage, it requires us to slow down to the pace of student learning. (Sal Khan’s 2016 TED talk, Let’s teach for mastery — not test scores, is an effective explanation of this point.)

Consider a foundational concept common in college algebra courses, like exponential functions. In most courses, the instructor covers the topic and then moves on as long as the distribution of everyone’s quiz grades doesn’t look too different from other semesters. But those grades represent a range of mastery. When exponential functions are called for in the next unit, the students whose understanding resulted in a C or D grade will struggle to master the next concept. Their challenges compound from there until they get the message that they aren’t capable of college math.

Mastery-based learning centers students not coverage. It often shifts the emphasis from summative assessment to formative assessment and uses data analytics to personalize learning for individual student needs. These practices can be supported by high-quality digital learning if deployed thoughtfully.

For example, lab simulation, VR, and adaptive courseware allow students to get in repetition and deeper learning experience to support mastery. They also overcome the problem of the very truncated lab time students often have because of limited space.

Related reading — Recentering Digital Learning Around Students and Their Needs

Integrated lecture and lab mode

I have been using “lecture” as a catch-all for outdated pedagogy, but really the problem is broader than that specific practice. STEM curricula are often misaligned in ways that make them ineffective, particularly in how the lecture and lab sessions connect with one another.

In traditional gateway science courses, students attend a lecture led by a professor or a postdoc and then separately attend a lab led by a graduate teaching assistant. Often the concepts covered in the lab are different from the concepts covered in the lecture, perhaps running a week or two ahead. From the student perspective, the hands-on component isn’t synchronized with the theory.

A better-aligned model integrates the theory and practice into one class meeting designed around inquiry and problem solving. At Sinclair Community College in Ohio where I was faculty, we revised the courses for biology majors with this integrated lecture and lab approach, and the physics program has since done the same.

The success of integration models is also evident in online science courses that incorporate theory and lab into a single course and naturally synchronize topics.

Another program I admire is Project Lead the Way, which helps K-12 science teachers develop lessons centered on lasting technical and problem-solving skills. This approach means teachers don’t try to cover an impossibly long list of concepts but instead go deeper into a limited set of topics.

The result is students are later capable of taking on unfamiliar subjects rather than getting intimidated by the sciences. The inquiry-based learning also teaches students that curiosity is a good thing.

Flipped classrooms

An innovation related to the integrated lecture and lab is the flipped classroom model, which shifts lectures and guided discussion to outside-of-class time, often using digital learning tools. For example, students may watch recorded lessons in short chunks in a courseware product that presents the right formative assessment or practice activity at the right time. That frees up faculty to use face-to-face time leading collaboration, peer learning, experiential learning activities, and other evidence-based practices that reinforce the concepts introduced in the recorded lessons.

Many of Every Learner’s partners are exploring this approach; this case study of Indian River State College in Florida details how flipped gateway courses in STEM can increase student success.

The department as a community of educators

In theory, individual faculty can make changes toward evidence-based teaching practices in their own sections of gateway courses and perhaps inspire change in their institutions.

In practice, updating pedagogy in gateway STEM courses is more likely to succeed when it comes from a community of educators. This is especially important in curricula where theory, practical application, and career relevance need to be balanced and where a topic is presented in a sequence of two or more semesters. Active learning in one course only goes so far if it doesn’t align with the objectives and practices of the next course.

At Every Learner Everywhere, what we see repeatedly in case studies of our partner organizations and from participants in our professional development services is that the most exciting work often happens at the department level. Groups of faculty coming together to embrace a culture of active learning can achieve powerful results for their students. They have conversations where they decide they are going to embrace change and take a big leap together for the sake of their students’ success.

The most successful projects are not static. They know learning from mistakes and moving forward is an important part of the work. They also know that, however successful a given approach, the students themselves keep changing and demand that educators stay on their toes.

Hard change but necessary

If you explore the examples referenced above, you’ll see that never once was the change easy and almost never did it depend on faculty alone. (The transformation at Wright State started with a $1.7 million NSF grant, and those don’t come along every day.)

It is possible to put equitable evidence-based teaching into practice, but these programs all faced constraints on funding, space, or other resources. For example, flipped classroom models often make do with lecture halls that aren’t optimal for active learning, and integrated lecture and lab models require more and different kinds of lab spaces.

At some point, meaningful pedagogical transformation will require resources to support it, as well as institutional leadership that embraces change. But trying to overcome the challenge of resource constraints is easier than trying to figure out why STEM gateway courses keep losing so many students generation after generation.

STEM faculty have to embrace that our teaching practices are in our control and abandon the lecture-first model. We have to be willing to say, as scientists, that we see the evidence that the old methods just don’t work for the majority of students. Our institutions have growing infrastructures in support of equity, and our departments have expressed a commitment to equity. Now we need to demonstrate that commitment by making specific changes around how we teach.

Norma Hollebeke is Senior Manager, Network Programs and Services at Every Learner Everywhere.

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