Lecturing Not Effective In Teaching STEM Students

July 31, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

Dr. Marilyne Stains attends a lecture on the campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Courtesy UNL Communications)

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Developing a science literate citizenry and a qualified Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workforce depend heavily on the learning environments provided in STEM courses at the university level. Despite numerous efforts nationwide to train STEM faculty in the implementation of teaching practices that have a demonstrated effectiveness, the extent to which this training has had a significant uptake nationwide is unknown.

Research shows lecturing – a professor teaching a topic, while a student listens – is one of the least successful ways to educate students in STEM courses. Yet, it still remains as the top way professors around the country teach. Marilyne Stains, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, partnered with ten other research teams to characterize a snapshot of the current instructional landscape in STEM classrooms in North America.

They analyzed over 2000 classes taught by more than 500 STEM faculty members at 25 colleges and universities in North America. But the results of the study show a lack of implementation of best practices by university faculty across the nation.

The outcome of their work is the identification of seven different instructional styles that can be categorized in three groups:

  • Didactic: the instructor lectures on a topic while the students listen
  • Interactive lecture: the instructor lectures but incorporates activities that require students to work in groups
  • Student-centered: Student spent a large amount of class time working with each other

  • Brandon McDermott, NET News: Dr. Marilyne Stains, when looking at teaching practices of STEM courses at universities around the United States how did your team measure what is considered good teaching?

    Marilyne Stains, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: We just wanted to capture what was taking place in those courses. What was the behavior of the instruction or what would the behavior of students -- and that's what this particular instrument does.

(Courtesy University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

There are many different observation protocols out there to measure teaching, but many of them are subjective. They're standardizing them against a particular type of practices that people would like to see in a classroom. This one does not (do that). So we just wanted to see how to STEM faculty teach in the wild, essentially.

Once we had collected our data with this COPUS instrument (Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate) what you get is a summary of the kind of behaviors that faculty and students exhibit during those courses. And then we can quantify how much time is spent in a classroom for each of these different behaviors.

When it comes to good teaching what we ended up doing is using this quantitative data to identify different instructional styles, different ways that faculty were teaching and once we had as instructional styles we can map them out on the spectrum from what we know align best with research and what we know does not align as well with research.

McDermott: When I looked at your report I read the following: “...institutions should revise policies to incentivize and reward evidence based instructional practices…" What are some of these other styles or practices that you talk about that are shown to work better than lecturing?

Dr. Stains: Active learning encompasses many practices -- broadly speaking -- where do students are just not listening to the instructor? So that can be anything from having students answer what we call clicker questions during class -- where the faculty stop lecturing ask a question, students vote with a remote on the answers.

Then to talk to each other about their answers and argue with each other about who has the right answers and then faculty just move on. That's one style of active learning to something that's like program based learning where your whole course is surrounded around like real world problems.

And the students engage in a whole course in solving this problem and they have to gather knowledge on their own, they have to go and do searches on the Internet that relate to the topics of skill that we need to master in order to be able to solve their problems and there's no longer any lecturing from the instructor -- or very minimally. It’s a wide range of practices.

McDermott: ​What do we know about how students respond to lecturing?

Dr. Stains: They're used to it, they expect it in the classroom. We just did a survey where we look at first year students and we asked them about expectation about how class will be class time will be used between college and high schools and they expect that there will be a lot more lecturing.

So I think they're embracing it. They like the idea of having someone telling them what they should know. If there's a really good explanation they get a feeling that they understand it because the explanation was very clear. Which is not always the case. And so if I can ask contrast that with active learning strategies. There's lots of research that shows that students like those strategies.

But when you first start implementing them students may become a bit resistant to them because now you put the learning responsibility on the students. And so now they actually have to think and do something with those explanations that are being provided. Sometimes at the beginning, once the faculty started using those practices there's a bit of a cultural shock for the students.

You need to really explain that as an instructor in your classroom. But in general they recognize that those practices really help them with their learning.

McDermott: What do we know about what colleges and universities are doing in response to research like this?

Dr. Stains: So there's been a big push over the last five to 10 years starting with the Obama administration which put out a report that strongly pushed all of us to think more about implementing active learning practices into the classrooms. Different institutions to respond differently. I think different disciplines to respond differently.

There are some contextual challenges. There's a culture within each institution that differs. If you have a research intensive institution that focuses on research and so policies regarding teaching are going to be harder to change. But if you are a premier undergraduate institution and clearly we care about students and focusing on teaching and so you may be able to do more changes to these and maybe more responsive there.

So it kind of varies a lot, but there are some research intensive institution who have made a lot of changes in their approach to teaching just because they cared. So it kind of depends.

McDermott: Dr. Marilyne Stains, thanks for joining me.

Dr. Stains: Thank you very much.