Tag: freshman chemistry

New Perspectives on Students – Part 2

by gwilson on May.13, 2009, under Students

dscn2796In Part 1, I introduced the issue of “today’s student” in old science programs, and the impact this has on our ability to retain and graduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.  I recalled a conversation with a fellow dean who saw high failure rates as an indicator of program rigor and quality, and my belief that effective, high quality teaching should be measured by student success rather than student failure.  I also relayed the diverging worlds that exist – one in which we see the necessity of students to conform to our dated ways of approaching science, the other in their understanding of the way things work in education and the world.  

So what is the cause of the discord between faculty expectations and student performance?  I believe technology is to blame.  Technology has forever changed the way students relate to the world, and their embracing this change makes our old methods of teaching both ineffective and inappropriate to encouraging student success in education, particularly in the sciences.  An unintended consequence of the technology revolution has been a change in students that has left faculty unarmed in the “war of education”.

Unlike our own education, today’s technology tools make devoting time to mastering information much less useful than devoting time to managing information.  I remember a time when my fellow students went to go to the library or searched through textbooks or class notes to find vital information (all of which made the practice of “just learning the facts” to make the trips less frequent a logical activity).  Compare that with my class the other day, when I mentioned an antibiotic and a student had googled its mode of action before I could get the words out.  We lived in a world where growing intellectually meant working to dig out information and “owning it”.  They live in a world where no digging is required – there is more information at their fingertips than they could ever use.  Their intellectual growth hinges on being able to manage that information – picking what is important, picking what is trustworthy, picking what is useful.  Type a few words in a search engine and you have your result in milliseconds – often tens of thousands of pages of information of varying levels of quality and relevance.  Their society is one of instant access to information, the use of technology without having to know how it works, recognition that they move forward with the world while old codgers like me simply hang on as best we can.  Our focus was memorization and integration; theirs is critical analysis and application.  Our approach to learning was “just in case”; theirs is “just in time”.  Why memorize anything when it is so readily available?  Why stifle creativity and productivity by demanding the mind-numbing, labor-intensive commitment to memory of lifeless facts and class content that will be obsolete within a matter of months?  Too many faculty are card catalogs in a Google world.   (Ask your students what a card catalog is and see if they know the answer!  Better yet, go to a library and see if you can find one!)  And in so many ways, our approach to education is asking them to abandon Google and return to the Dewey Decimal System.  Who’s going to win that war?

So what has this done to today’s students?  They are impatient, they lack persistence, they come to college having had to do little for themselves, the education system has worried more about their feelings than their foundation, there is a sense of entitlement for “just showing up”, work is optional, and so on and so on.  Check the boxes, be a nice person, move on to college.  They are a fundamentally different educational species from ourselves due to the natural selection imposed by technology and a changing world.

And so our students come to class with much different expectations than we do about the form and substance of their education.  The buzz word around here among faculty frustrated with student performance is:  motivation.  “We can’t get them to do the work!” is the most common explanation for student failure.  So, some departments will diligently throw more work at them under the logical but ill-guided notion that with more work they will learn the material.  If a student doesn’t speak your language when you are asking him to pick up the 20-pound weight in front of him, does it make sense to then change the weight to 50-pounds and expect his hearing to improve?

One of my most frustrating experiences in the past decade came this last August when we brought Dr. Saudra McGuire from LSU’s Center for Academic Success to campus to talk to our faculty about motivating student learning.  I had heard her at a SACS meeting the year before and was amazed by something she said.  She was teaching chemistry at Cornell, and as she relates it, “I could explain freshman chemistry in 40 different ways meeting all the learning styles and giving abundant examples, but students were still failing at unacceptable levels.  It wasn’t until I realized what I was saying was not what they were hearing that I knew how to fix the problem.”  Too often, we want to work harder at the things we do well instead of studying our students, finding the problem, and switching to what works.  What is the saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome?  And we are scientists!  We, of all people, should understand if the outcome is not what we want, the approach we take must be changed!

But so many faculty don’t “get” that.  Their response to today’s new student is use of blunt force to make them learn.  There comes a point where added work reaches diminishing returns, unless the return you want is to so completely overwhelm and defeat a student that they decide to leave the sciences and abandon their dreams altogether. 

Fishing without bait or lure.  Ever watch a good fisherman?  S/he takes stock of the environment, studies their prey, and experiments to find what works to motivate strikes on their line.  They can tell you where the fish are, what they bite on, what time of day is best, where you should stand or anchor your boat.  And if they have no success with that, they have a few other successful approaches and favorite spots to turn to.  A fool would sit by a lake in the same spot for 12 hours with no success, using a single unproductive approach.  They might as well be fishing without bait or a lure, because what they are offering isn’t what the fish are biting on.  They can blame the fish all they want, but the fact is they haven’t “sold” the fish on their bait – the fish have no motivation to bite.  As educators, we must generate motivation to learn by taking stock of the learning environment (which, unlike in fishing, we can change!), studying our students, and experimenting with our educational approaches to motivate our students to learn.  Throwing more empty fish hooks in the water may increase the chance of a catch, but it is a terribly inefficient approach. 

In the next installment of the series, I’ll begin to lay out an approach that solves the motivation issue and provides graduates with a lasting, working knowledge of the discipline and that builds the skills needed to remain life-long learners.  This represents the heart of the BIMS approach to education.

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