Science and math literacy: New ways of teaching, based on how students learn
Scientists and mathematicians are masterful problem solvers, but only recently have some of them begun to see the teaching and learning of science and math as an area ripe for research.
On the Clemson University campus, the result has been dramatic improvements in student success rates in the so-called "gateway" courses that have thwarted many would-be scientists and engineers.
Calculus and general chemistry are prime examples. High failure rates in those courses — a problem hardly unique to Clemson — have dropped significantly in the past several years, thanks largely to a new focus on how students learn math and science.
General chemistry "is sometimes thought of as a weeding-out course," says Melanie Cooper, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Education at Clemson. "We want to be gardeners instead of weeders."
So when the DFW rate — the percentage of students who received Ds or Fs or who withdrew from the course — reached a high of 44 percent in 2004, Provost Dori Helms provided support for a concerted effort to stem the tide.
"The provost gave us funding to cut class size and hire people whose job is to teach general chemistry," says Cooper, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Manchester in England before developing a research interest in chemistry education.
"Typically courses in college are taught by chemists who are highly qualified researchers but who don't necessarily know anything about how people learn chemistry."
With smaller classes, instructors who are specialists in chemical education, and a more hands-on, interactive approach to learning, the DFW rate has dropped to a fourth of what it was (see chart).
At the same time, the students' performance on the American Chemical Society's nationally standardized exam for general chemistry has held steady — a clear indication that the improvements did not come as a result of "dumbing down" the course.
Cooper, a nationally recognized leader in the relatively new specialty of chemical education, co-chairs the College Board's science standards committee. Her research focuses on how students solve problems and what teaching methods are most effective in large classes.
"We've found all kinds of interesting things," she says. "There's a fine line between helping students and frustrating them until they give up. I'm really proud of the results we've seen."
An important aspect of today's general chemistry classes, Cooper says, is group learning.
"Students who work together develop better problem-solving skills," she says. "If you can explain to someone else how you solved a problem, it helps you understand it better."
The story is much the same in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, where the DFW rate in calculus spiked at over 50 percent in 2000.
"Students were taking the course who weren't ready," says Professor Rick Jarvis, the department's coordinator of instruction until retiring from the position recently. "I have data going back to the early 80s. Historically the rate of Ds, Fs and Ws was in the 40 to 45 percent range during that entire period, which was not that different from other similar schools. Students weren't getting the preparation they needed."
DFW rates for freshman cohorts
Math 106 Chemistry 101
What amounted to a sea change began in 2001. First the university implemented the Clemson Math Placement Test and used it to determine whether students were ready for Calculus for Business or Calculus for Science and Engineering.
"We weren't trying to keep students out," Jarvis says. "We were trying to get them into courses they could succeed in. If you don't place high enough, you have to take a prep course to get you ready."
This change alone brought the DFW rate down to about 35 percent. Then, in 2006, the department decided to try a new approach to teaching calculus called SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs, which North Carolina State University had found to be successful for teaching physics).
"It's a different environment," Jarvis says. "The classes actually are larger than the traditional calculus class, but you have multiple instructors and minimal lecturing. Students work in teams at round tables and the teacher's station is in the middle. "
The class is led by an instructor, an experienced graduate student teaching assistant, and an undergraduate SI — supplemental instructor — who roams around helping students.
"A lot of responsibility is put on the students to read the material and be ready for class," Jarvis says. "We talk a minimal time and then we do problems. It's noisy, busy. At times I had to tell them at the end of class it was time to go."
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