Talking Teaching

August 1, 2013

does science literacy matter?

That’s the title of a post over on the Australian site, The Conversation (which I found by way of a piece on “Scientists, the media, & society” by Sir Peter Gluckman). The author of the piece, Ken Friedman, answers his question with an emphatic “yes, and here’s why”.

As he notes,

The big question is what we expect citizens in a modern industrial democracy to know & to understand

– he’s writing following the publication of a recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science that suggested that in some areas, Australians’ science knowledge could be better. (And, I hasten to add, I suspect a similar survey would garner similar results in New Zealand.)

It caught my eye because I recently had a discussion around assessment: the context was on-line assessment and whether it mattered if students could check resources as they wrote. My feeling on this one was no, not if your assessment was intended to look at skills & higher-order thinking and not simple mastery of factual content. Those attributes – which specifically relate to science literacy – are surely ones that all uni graduates should come out with, after all.

I probably need to unpack that statement a bit! I agree that students do require some (lots of?) factual knowledge in a subject, and that their knowledge should increase in breadth & depth as they progress through their program of learning. But shouldn’t they also be learning how to process that information? How to assess its validity? How to apply it in novel circumstances? After all, there’s a huge body of information – which varies greatly in quality – out there on the internet (& in more traditional places such as libraries!) and freely available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine. And it’s very clear, from following on-line discussions (on fluoridation, for example) – Facebook, science blogs, newspaper comments pages – that how people deal with that information is really important.

So, provided that I’d given students plenty of opportunity to learn & practice the relevant skills in advance, I could see opportunities for on-line assessment where it wouldn’t matter if students had books open, or webpages. Because the assessment item would provide information (in a structured way, & for a particular context) & students would be assessed, not on their knowledge, but on their ability to apply those higher-order thinking skills to the data set.**

But maybe I’m a tad too idealistic :) Feel free to drop by & let me know what you think!

** In the same way, after running the ‘design-an-organism’ classes for a couple of years now, I’ve seriously thought about asking just two questions in the final exam: ‘design’ a plant, and an animal, for a particular well-defined environment. Give plenty of background information, & let them go to it. The test would be in how well they could justify their various decisions. Hmmmm.

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1 Comment »

  1. Totally agree, Ali. I think there’s too much emphasis on committing to memory information that can rapidly become outdated. It reminds me of working, in another context, with a lecturer who was having to teach standards specifications in the plumbing industry to students who had been working as apprentice plumbers all day. The poor guys (no women at that time) were having to memorise facts and figures that were REALLY hard to memorise. When I asked the lecturer what the plumbers-on-the-job did, he said they keep the manuals in their vans and look it up. So why memorise them? Didn’t make a lot of sense, really. I think that what matters in assessment is that students know where to find information (swiftly, when necessary) and can apply it appropriately, rather than having to carry it all in their heads.

    Comment by Pip Bruce Ferguson (@DocPipNZ) — August 7, 2013 @ 9:52 am


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