Natural Sciences

Extreme Makeover

Leaving the lecture behind in favor of active learning

Real or pseudo science (or satire)? All students, no matter what their major, need to be discerning students of scientific information in their daily lives.

Okay, class, raise your hand if you spent most of your time in college sitting in a big room listening to a professor talk.

Thought so. Lecturing has dominated college classrooms for the last 800 years—they don’t call them “lecture halls” for nothing—and it’s a safe bet the lecture isn’t going away anytime soon. But some erstwhile lecturers at the UO are showing that for many classes, especially science, students learn more when professors talk less.

“The overwhelming majority of science courses are taught by a professor lecturing the students, even in the face of studies showing that alternative teaching methods demonstrate much greater learning and much lower student failure,” said Michael Raymer, a physics professor and codirector of the UO Science Literacy Program with Judith Eisen, a biology professor.

That alternative method—active learning—is at the heart of the Science Literacy Program, a pioneering effort that’s giving a chunk of the introductory science curriculum an extreme makeover. It has two main goals: to improve the way science is taught so students learn more and retain it longer, and to make the things students learn—especially students who aren’t majoring in science—more relevant to their everyday lives.

What’s more, the Science Literacy Program provides fellowships for graduate students to coteach classes and the opportunity for advanced science undergraduates to sign on as teachers. The program was launched with a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the UO has now committed to continued funding to sustain it. (Note this feature on the program in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Since 2011, 32 professors have used active-learning methods in 30 science literacy courses. What sets these courses apart is student involvement, achieved through small-group discussions, question-and-answer sessions or classroom technology such as “clickers.” These hand-held devices allow student responses to be tabulated in real time—and shown on a big screen—enabling the teacher to quickly assess how well students are learning.

Studies have shown that failure rates in a traditional lecture class are 55 percent higher than in an active-learning class; conversely, letter grades increase by an average of 6 percent with active-learning, said Elly Vandegrift, associate director of the Science Literacy Program. That’s the difference between a B and a B+.

But the program does more than boost grades. The UO requires all students, even those not majoring in science, to take at least 15 science credits, or about four courses. The Science Literacy Program helps students who are not majoring in science to leave college with a solid understanding of how science works and the ability to use that understanding in their daily lives.

Take the Biology 140 course Vandegrift taught winter term. It covered stem cells and cloning, genetically modified organisms and human genetics, helping students understand the science behind hot-button issues while giving them a solid grounding in the basics of biology.

“We weave in all the basic biology that you might do in a traditional lab-based Biology 101 course,” Vandegrift said. “We talk about cells, we talk about how proteins are made, we talk about genetics. But we’re not just talking about them in isolation. We’re looking at the real, practical application of it, how this will matter to you in your life outside the classroom.”

―Greg Bolt