Talking Teaching

February 19, 2012

have universities degraded to only teaching scientific knowledge?

The title of this post is one of the search terms that people used when they came here to Talking Teaching. It caught my eye & I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.

We’ll assume that this question is directed at Science Faculties :-) Using ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science. (If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say – oh OK, I will say – that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience (eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’, etc) has no place in a university, & it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in the curriculum eg in the US, UK & Australia. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, & close investigation – in one case, by a 9-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ & not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts & expect them to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences & a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowledge they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that simply by presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking & answering questions in a scientific way.  And in that sense, then I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’ – until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts & cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts, conveyed very little about what science is actually all about.  And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (here, here, & here, for example).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (& much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of uni, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments & must surely have talked about the hows & whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour. However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, & they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy & the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, & students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first year. In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously. And when you’re under pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses want students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’d generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller 3rd-year classes?) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, & practicing a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I linked to show that it can be done, and done very successfully. Argument 1: there’s more to producing a scientifically-literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, & then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world.

And argument 2: giving students early practice at doing & thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study. (In NZ, graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!)

I’m sure you can think of others :-)


  1. In my undergraduate studies, I mostly sat in huge lecture halls, memorized facts, and spewed them back out on tests. Even in the labs, I “did” very little science. I imagine my schooling would have been very different if I was encouraged to practice doing and thinking science. Thanks for posting!

    Comment by Darlena — February 26, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    • I hope you enjoy reading some of the studies I linked to in that post :-)

      Comment by alison — February 26, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

  2. I will check them out. Thanks! :)

    Comment by Darlena — February 28, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

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