Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching: Books

Article excerpt

Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching. By Gregory Light and Marina Micari. Harvard University Press. 304pp, Pounds 18.95. ISBN 9780674052925. Published 28 March 2013

As the authors recount in this useful book, the Gateway Science Workshops (GSWs) run by their institution, Northwestern University in the US, target first-year undergraduates with the aim of improving understanding, increasing confidence and spreading enthusiasm so that students ultimately choose to major in science, technology and mathematics subjects.

Via the well-established concept of peer (collaborative) learning, the facilitators (students a year above the target group) are trained in the underlying science and basic pedagogy, and lead groups of five to eight in discussing and solving problems drawn from real life. Although this work is not credit-bearing, students are keen to participate or to be facilitators, and reported outcomes and feedback have been strongly positive. Having concepts explained by someone close to one's own age is clearly crucial to the success of the GSWs.

Furthermore, to draw students into the "community of science", Northwestern developed Science Research Workshops, in which first-year students are invited to do "real research" in the university's laboratories during the holidays, again with strikingly positive outcomes.

I was convinced by these accounts. But I wasn't surprised: the ideas aren't new. Both approaches have long been recognised as effective in increasing deep understanding, confidence and enthusiasm. So why are they so little used in the UK?

Gregory Light and Marina Micari admit that these approaches are not widely adopted in the US either, and the reasons they cite will resonate with UK peers: "Faculty face high and conflicting demands on their time, students resist new practices and educational change does not fit neatly into existing promotion systems." And this is despite UK institutions' claims to value high-quality teaching, as they subject academics to student satisfaction surveys (often completed most critically by those who attended fewest lectures), while simultaneously demanding (and rewarding) incessant grant applications.

So what could persuade academics to adopt these practices, if increased student knowledge, understanding and engagement aren't enough? …

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