I had some unanticipated teaching challenges last spring, when I was teaching a couple sections of an intro-level organismal biology lab. I was befuddled, because on the lab reports, students were getting some straightforward questions wrong. Remarkably wrong in an unexpected manner, nearly all with the same wrong answer.
This might sound like a red flag for a situation where students were not doing the work on their own. But that’s not what was going on. I was in the lab when they were working, and my students were clearly spending time at the various lab stations, putting in diligent time.
What made this situation weirder is that I wrote most of these labs myself, when I joined the department 11 years ago. For a little while, I taught this lab on the regular, but I think it had been at least eight years. When I taught the lab earlier, students were definitely not getting this kind of wrong answer that they were getting now. So what had changed? Me as an instructor? The way the lab was set up? The student population? What they’ve been getting in the lecture course? It wasn’t clear to me, until it was.
What changed was cell phones. When I last taught this lab, shortly after the start of the Obama administration, it wasn’t entirely routine for students to whip out their phones to look up information. I designed the lab for students to consult materials, with some self-directed inquiry, to be able to answer the questions. The lab provided context, of course, but I wanted them to use textbooks and other available reference material, to piece things together. I thought it worked rather well. Students were compelled to think critically about some concepts and had to seek out new information to answer the question being posed. That’s good, right?
Last semester, students were doing the same thing I expected them to do — they were looking up information and using this to write their lab reports. This is a thing I liked! and I still like! I even tweeted about it from lab!
Here’s the rub: students converged on the same wrong answers because they were feeding the same questions into google and not thinking critically about the answers they got. Does this mean that I should ban cell phones from the lab? Hell no! For me, it means two things:
- It has always been my job to teach information literacy, and this is a wake-up call that I need to pay closer attention. I must make sure that students are equipped to do inquiry properly, that expectations are clear, and that we are accountable to make sure that google is not used as an oracle.
- Because students will use their phones and laptops as a part of inquiry in the lab, I should be aware of what they will find, and design the lab to be more effective. I should be modifying the lab to be supportive of this inquiry and help students find useful information, rather than unwittingly provide prompts that lead students down rabbit holes of mistaken information.
Now that so much information is easily looked up (and that won’t be changing anytime soon, notwithstanding the arrival of a massive geomagnetic storm or some other catastrophe), we need to reconsider what belongs in the educational canon, what knowledge and skills our students need, and what can be looked up when necessary. Is it more important to memorize the Krebs cycle or spend time on deeper concepts about metabolic pathways? Should students memorize so many branching points in the tree of the history life, or instead learn bigger concepts about some of the branching points and how we build the trees? Should we still be teaching the construction of life tables in every ecology class?
When building curricula, I think it’s rather obvious to point out that our decisions should be structured by understanding that we all have rapid access to information. This is just one of the many things, I learned, we have to revisit every time we update our courses.