12 tips for talking to science faculty about new teaching strategies

Attention education researchers: Here are some tips about interacting with science faculty. I’ve noticed that this genre uses a lot of lists. So, here’s a list:

  1. Lose the acronyms.
  2. Lose the jargon. You can use Bloom’s Taxonomy without actually calling it that. You can ask us to use formative assessments without calling them that.
  3. We’re not going to spend more time on new approaches to teaching, unless this new thing will save us more time down the road.
  4. Our fundamental attitudes towards students and the educational system are unlikely to change.
  5. Some scientists just don’t place their students first. Those are the ones you really need to reach. Don’t judge us as a group because that judgment can’t fix the problem.
  6. Don’t prescribe changes in curriculum.
  7. If you say it works, then show us data. Anecdotes are subject to suspicion.
  8. Data are also subject to scrutiny, too. You win skeptical people over with data and letting them draw their own conclusions. Among scientists, skepticism is a virtue.
  9. Don’t push technology as a solution to a pedagogical challenge. We’d like to see what works, but not to have it marketed to us. (For example, tell us about clickers. But don’t claim that they make students learn better, because they don’t. They promote active learning, problem-solving and reflection, which causes learning. Scientists dislike false claims that often accompany technological promises.)
  10. Go easy on the Venn diagrams. One or two are okay, as long as they’re not insipid.
  11. Tread carefully when claiming that current practices are downright unethical. It’s hard to win people over to your cause when you start with the premise that they are making unethical choices.
  12. Accept that this list is chock full of hypocrisy. Scientists love their own jargon, and love their technology, and are not education experts. But get over it if you want us to get on board and teach better by listening to your advice. That’s what it’ll take to get most of us to listen.

This list makes it sounds like I’m speaking for all scientists, but for all I know I’m off base on most of these items. I’m not in much of a position to speak for the motivations of others. I don’t have a broad understanding about how education researchers typically interact with science faculty, either. However, people are more apt to pay attention to dumb lists than well-composed longer pieces of writing, so I thought I’d give a shot at this, snappy, oversimplified and condescending form of communication. If you’d like nuance, feel free to drop me a line. And of course, feel free to add new ones in the comments, starting with 13.

Revision 22 Sep 2014: Does this represent my views? No. Does this represent most scientists? I don’t really know. It does represent a bunch of feedback I’ve heard and overheard from faculty after being involved in pedagogical training session. A lot of scientists just flat out tune-out, and if someone managed to follow these tips, I would guess, it’d be more likely that more scientists would listen. I’m all down with the ed-jargon and acronyms and being student-centered and trying new tech when it works. But, I’m the converted, and we can’t improve teaching in universities by preaching to the converted.

6 thoughts on “12 tips for talking to science faculty about new teaching strategies

  1. Thanks for typing these up. I do think there needs to be more dialog between education researchers and instructors that uses the same terminology. So, regarding #1 and #2, I agree completely.

    Regarding #3, why should a new teaching tool be solely for saving time. What if it increases comprehension, and reduces global failure rates? Isn’t that enough? Teaching shouldn’t be just this thing academics have to do. Teaching is a component of being a faculty member. There are plenty of research-only positions (granted, though, that they don’t all have the same flexibility).

    Regarding #4, why not? Scientists, more than most other disciplines, are primed to change our opinions in the face of evidence. We can also be just as stubborn and willful as anyone else, but it seems counter to the process to say instructors will not change their attitudes.

    I guess, also, this list kind of left me wishing there were a discussion of more of the positive things that could be done to promote useful discussions. For example:

    1. Suggest incremental changes that can be incorporated without overturning the curriculum.

    2. Give practical examples of the kinds of tools or techniques that have evidence supporting improved course outcomes. Even if they aren’t the same discipline, showing is better than telling.

  2. I agree — especially on the bit about data.

    I’m currently reading through “How learning works” by Susan Ambrose et al., and it’s really good. Informative and with 0 Venn diagrams (so far)!

    One open question: there are some papers that either have clear implications, or at least make recommendations, about the organisation or content of a class (thinking about https://peerj.com/articles/285/ or http://dx.doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1469-1795.2012.00597.x for example). Do you think it’s worth putting them in the syllabus?

    Especially in classes where students have to read papers for assignments, showing how to use data to support our choices seems like a good choice. Any opinion?

  3. What to teach and what not to teach is a huge question and problem, I think, and shifts with priorities, what is in vogue, and what’s in textbooks. There was a post in Dynamic Ecology with a poll about what should be in a Community Ecology class, and I was struck by how all over the map responses were, nothing like a consensus.
    I think the more we explain choices with data, and the more we include data-based decision-making in courses, the better off everybody is. I bet it’d be find hard to someone disagreeing with that. How much of this to do, instead of spending time on central concepts using other approaches, well, that’s where tradeoffs begin.

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