Introductory courses have received most of the attention in efforts to improve the learning environment in college science courses, but upper-level courses also benefit from a focus on learning goals and the use of alternative teaching methods. For a junior/senior geochemistry course I have successfully incorporated various methods of cooperative learning, including group analysis of questions or problems during class time, and long-term collaborative projects. Traditional exams have been replaced by frequent assignments, project reports, oral presentations and a reflective course summary. Student feedback, achievement, and course evaluations indicate that students reach higher levels of learning and satisfaction that bode well for long-term retention of concepts. The data suggest that working collaboratively during class, discussing homework in class before the due date, and giving regular, timely feedback on assignments are the main reasons for the positive outcomes.
As Professor Rockworth, renowned among his colleagues for his dynamic and informative lectures, finished his oration on the crystallography and chemistry of plagioclase feldspars, he was filled with the glow of his theatrical, nay, even brilliant performance. Beryl Tourmaline, one of the brightest gems among the majors in the class, immediately raised her hand. Eagerly anticipating a thought-provoking interchange, he was crestfallen when she asked: "What are plagioclase feldspars?"
Perhaps this is an exaggerated scenario, but many of us have faced the situation where students, who we know have been through all the prerequisites, still seem to have missed some fundamental concepts from an earlier course. Even more exasperating is the experience of teaching an important principle, and then having the vast majority of the class get those questions wrong on the exam.
Recent publications about the quality of teaching and learning in undergraduate science courses have focused primarily on introductory-level subjects. This has been a clear priority that has emerged from a nationwide emphasis on the science "literacy" of the general public, and the low numbers of students who pursue majors in science and mathematics (George, 1996, Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). Over the past several years, college professors concerned about the problem have implemented alternative teaching methods to stimulate student interest and participation in entry-level courses. In most cases, these alternatives (e.g. collaborative learning, problem-based learning) de-emphasize lecturing and "cookbook" laboratories in favor of student-active methods in the instructional process (McNeal and D'Avanzo, 1997; Tolman, 1999). The overall goal is to align the classroom experience with the atmosphere of exploration and discovery that practitioners know constitutes the core of science. Research results confirm that these changes improve both the learning and the interest of students in the course (Yuretich et al, 2001; O'Sullivan and Copper, 2003). Yet when these students become majors, they often encounter upper-level courses where teaching may not be quite as innovative. Undergraduate science majors often cite poor teaching as a reason why they switch to other disciplines (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). Although there are noticeable exceptions, the major sequence in a science curriculum is often driven by content, specifically the need to "cover the material" necessary for the next courses the students may be taking. In addition, instructors may view science majors as junior members of the community, and therefore they surmise that instructional methods should have minimal impact on the students' interest level. A number of college teachers, including those from Geosciences, have developed new approaches to course design, assessment methods, and instructional techniques for upper-level courses that are intended to challenge students and develop higher-order thinking skills (de Caprariis, 2002; Tewksbury and MacDonald, 2004; Brady et al, 1997). …