Teaching Undergraduate Science
A Guide to Overcoming Obstacles to Student Learning
by Linda C. Hodges
From Jeanne Narum: I was privileged to be invited to write the foreword for this volume, recognizing how deep is Hodges analysis of the problem and practical the solutions she offers. It should be a major resource for faculty and other stakeholders dealing with the challenge of change.
We only think when confronted with a problem.
- John Dewey
If we are to achiever things never before accomplished, we must employ methods never before attempted.
- Francis Bacon
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
- Benjamin Franklin or perhaps Albert Einstein
With these three quotations, Linda Hodges, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs & Director of the Teaching Learning Center at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, introduces her book by stating the problem:
Many of us complain year after year about the problems we have with our students: they don’t read the text, can’t solve the problems or write lab reports, and lackadaisical study habits. We often assume these probably are intractable and carry on with our teaching as usual.
But the good news is that these problems are necessarily intractable. We can get more of our students to read and learn from text; to learn and learn from, problem solving, to write decent lab reports; and to start to learn on their own. Based on what we know about human learning, however, we may need to try some different strategies in our teaching to bring about these transformations.
Foreword by Jeanne L. Narum
“Thou didst beat me, and knowledge entered my head."
--Egyptian child’s inscription on a clay tablet, circa 3,000 B.C.
We have come a long way in education over the past 5,000 years, with perhaps the most dramatic advances coming in just the last few decades. An emerging, evidence-based focus on “what works” in teaching and learning—buttressed by rapid research advances—is providing new insights into how educators can create truly effective learning environments.
In this light, reading Teaching Undergraduate Science does not come off as a dry research-laden tome. Instead, it is like having a conversation with a colleague who shares a passion for effective teaching—someone who has been in the trenches and has discovered through both theory and practice what works to create real learning. The book is a clear reflection of Hodges’ professional trajectory from junior to senior chemistry faculty member, her stints directing centers for teaching and learning, and her decades of work with national leaders and initiatives working to transform undergraduate learning.
We are well into a paradigm shift in teaching, from treating it as transmission of content (perhaps from the end of a stick) to teaching as the art and practice of both knowing what constitutes learning and knowing how to achieve it. In other words, teaching is perhaps necessary but not sufficient in itself for producing learning. Creating real learning demands a focus on the learner—on how they learn, on when, why and where they learn, and, truly, if they are learning. This way of thinking demands an evidence-based focus on learning outcomes. And Teaching Undergraduate Science provides such a sound, “scientific” approach to effective teaching.
Teaching Undergraduate Science is thus a timely book. As noted in her introduction, it is a compendium of current research as well as a protocol manual: a readily accessible guide to the current literature, the best practices known to date, and ways to think about the results of your efforts. The book is a valuable resource for faculty in a wide range of disciplines and institutional contexts. Hodges makes a strong case for approaching issues in the science classroom the same way a scientist conducts research: by understanding the issue, identifying how others have addressed similar situations, becoming familiar with literature in the field, and by practicing and applying the available theories and tools. To this end, the book’s “charts” provide useful prompts for personal reflections and communal conversations about integrating new strategies into one’s teaching repertoire. Hodges is also clear about the time required and difficulty of implementing the strategies.
“I can do this.” Hodges’s emphasis on “deliberate practice”—an apprenticeship model of learning in which students solve real problems, evaluate ideas, and weigh options—is important for helping students believe in their abilities to learn and do science. The “I can do this” notion can also be used as an affirmation by faculty as they work through Teaching Undergraduate Science. Indeed, faculty can use the book’s strategies to engage in deliberate practice toward creating real learning in their classrooms.
As Hodges notes, the book can be read in its entirety, or chapter by chapter. Teachers can perhaps make the most of Teaching Undergraduate Science by gaining a sense of the whole before delving more deeply into specific sections. For faculty tackling personal obstacles to teaching, the book can serve as a go-to resource. The book can also provide context for a wide range of campus discussions, from formal sessions within a center for teaching excellence about how research can inform practice, to one-on-one mentoring between STEM faculty at different career stages, and to STEM departmental and divisional retreats.
As someone involved for many years in communities tackling the challenges of transforming undergraduate STEM learning, I found value in how Teaching Undergraduate Science discusses particular strategies through an evidentiary lens about their effectiveness in achieving learning goals. A focus on “what works” in teaching and learning demands such a methodological and reflective approach to the profession of teaching.
Teaching Undergraduate Science is a valuable reminder of where we are now in understanding how learning happens and how particular learning strategies work to overcome obstacles in the classroom. In documenting the value of creating environments where teachers and students can come together as a community of learners, working together to define and develop learning outcomes, this books serves as a road map for the future of teaching.