Evolution & Student-centered Teaching Practices

Why does education "work"? How should we think about its best practices as a whole?I’ve been reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and lately it’s gotten me thinking about the role of morality in education. If education is a garden, morality is the soil. What implicit moralities best cultivate learning? What keeps thirty students itching for A’s from cornering the teacher in his/her office and demanding that grade?

That’s a little far-fetched, but you see where I’m going. The classroom is bound by certain ethical principles, but what keeps students (or instructors) from violating them? Part of that can be explained by student self-interest: “this content will improve me, so I have incentive to follow the rules,” or “I want the grade, so I’ll go along with what the instructor says.” But there’s good reason to believe that’s not the whole story. For example, many instructors take an arbitrary approach to assigning grades, and for these teachers doing that is in their self-interest: it keeps students off their backs and frees up more time for [writing grants|lab work|time with family|anything else]. Of course, the best instructors know better. They understand that arbitrary grades (e.g. curves) are demotivating and encourage cutthroat behavior in students. They know that students must have a reason to buy into the morality of education, and that many practices in the classroom undercut education’s lofty foundations. What’s the core reason to buy into education, and what practices have evolved to promote that buying in? Consider an evolutionary perspective. Continue reading →


Inside Students’ Heads

There is a definite difference between good teaching and good learning. On the one hand, good learning does not follow logically from good teaching, and on the other, learning can take place without the aid of a teacher per se. The two can, in theory, be completely decoupled. And unfortunately, one’s definition of good teaching does not always overlap with techniques that actually lead to student learning. This problem of being stuck in one’s ways is particularly common in chemical education, where the divide between those interested in the subject (teachers) and those not (let’s face it…students) is extremely wide.

Enter constructivism, a theory of psychology about mental development, the formation of knowledge, and the process of learning. The fundamental constructivist hypothesis is that knowledge is constructed: it is not “out there” on a silver platter ready to be assimilated unchanged. In reality, the learning process mangles what is actually heard into a system of constructs that make sense in the mind of the learner (and these constructs depend on what was there before, which is different for each learner). Applications of constructivism to education at the collegiate level basically assume that “hell, the students are paying for their education, so yeah…student learning should be our ultimate goal.”* So let’s get inside the students’ heads and hire instructors to cross the chasm and coach students to the other side. That’s a whole hell of a lot easier than yelling at students across the canyon (figuratively speaking) and expecting them to listen. To sell the strategy, let’s wrap it all in a fuzzy package and give it a fancy name, like student-centered teaching.

The interesting thing about SCT, to me, is that it seems to force the instructor to take a somewhat passive role in the classroom. The question immediately comes to mind: “how do I center ‘teaching’ on the student without making my job as an instructor just a little less necessary?” The short answer to this question is that for student-centered approaches to work, instructor efforts must be redirected, not replaced. Indeed they can’t be replaced—we still need to get students over the bridge from ignorance. So what should the modern student-centered instructor be doing?

Providing relevant contexts for learning. Without relevant context, students will not see the subject as valuable. But, you’d be surprised what can serve as “relevant context.” I still remember a tangent one of my advanced organic professors made when we talked about aromatic substitution reactions, about the use of p-dichlorobenzene in urinal cakes.

Providing tools that can be applied to problem solving. Many tasks taught in chemistry curricula involve painfully rote activities—nomenclature comes to mind (and for me, all of general chemistry). This fact, coupled with the notion that the relevance of many low-level chemistry topics (e.g. molecular orbitals) is hazy at best for students, suggests the need for tools to automate and simplify necessary tasks with little educational value. Not to downplay physical chemistry, but MO calculators short-circuit the need to get from “this is an atom” to “here’s how to use MOs to predict reactivity, which actually has real-world applications.” Students find the latter discussion much more valuable and from an instructor’s perspective, hey, it’s still chemistry.

Forgetting about covering content. A lifetime is not long enough to cover the entirety of the landscape of organic chemistry. Pressure to cover a great deal of content, in this day and age, comes from the need to demonstrate the relevance of chemistry to students—”see? It’s here, and here, and here, and here, and here, so it’s clearly relevant. And stuff.” But, time is limited and no teacher can have her cake and eat it too. There is a theoretical limit on how much can be covered in one semester, and it’s lower than most of us think (assuming student learning is the goal of all this education business). The good news is that sacrificing the fundamentals a little to cover more real-world applications is OK, provided effective tools are in place (see above).

Handing over the reins. In addition to providing contexts for learning, instructors of higher-level classes should establish means for students to provide contexts of their own. In other words, let your students do the work for you!  Not really, of course, as designing, building, and managing a system for students to contribute to course content is a full-time job in and of itself. It’s worth it, though—trust me.

* Not a given in the physical sciences at large research universities, even now.