Sunday 31 May 2009

Is Biology Teaching Just About Facts?

I just read an article in The Scientist that made me see that there is a long way to go before biology will be taught properly. The article is called "Facts First" and the tag-line is "In my youth, I designed a cell biology course that I thought grad students would love. they hated it."

This is written by a senior US researcher who had responded to complaints by students that they hated the "rote memorization" of courses. To replace it he devised a course based on concepts and not the textbook facts. He expected students to enjoy learning how to think but the response was very negative in their feedback and the course was withdrawn and they returned to rote learning.

Stories like this make me want to scream. These are grad school students. If you are a post-graduate and you need to be spoon-fed facts you should not be there. If you are planning an academic career then you might make a PhD and you might make a post-doc but you will never ever get any further because you have no initiative. You can be directed but you cannot direct so you will never be able to initiate research.

The problem for the students is that they are pushed out of their comfort zone if they have to think. In the UK at the minute this is particularly galling. Students come from a background where the facts are not the main focus but when they get to under-graduate level they often find themselves being forced into the rote learning style. So that all of the good work of secondary education is lost. By the time I see them at masters level they have lost all their ability to think for themselves. I teach students who have fist class degrees from top institutions whose criteria for getting this degree specifies this level of synthesis and understanding, so why can't I see it in any of them?

Ultimately in the case described in the article should they have listened to the student feedback? The proof of teaching is the outputs. If the course was not properly aligned so that assessment had not been changed to reflect the new style of teaching then the students had a point, but with the appropriate assessment in place the next test of output is how effective they are at getting jobs and having successful careers. Sometimes students cannot appreciate the pain they have to go through for the gain in the future.

I would argue that most of those who were negative about the course and who want to fall back on facts will not have very successful careers and that their employers will not find that they are independent workers, and will find they have to spend a significant amount of time and resources on skills training. These are the hidden costs of taking the rote learning approach.