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What is Scientific Teaching?

One of the greatest disservices of higher education in science is that we teach students about science instead of actually teaching them how to conduct science.  Throughout the entire education process, and especially in the sciences, knowledge is conveyed through lecture.  In turn, students demonstrate how well they have learned lecture material, most often, through handwritten tests.  Scientists have to be innovative, demonstrate critical thinking skills, and know how to conduct experiments in order to successfully conduct research.  These skills are difficult to teach and develop in the traditional lecture and written assessment model.  Scientific teaching looks to improve upon the education process through active learning, backward design, assessment, and diversity.  Some great examples of scientific teaching can be found in CWIS, the CLSE Portal for Scientific Teaching. Most notably are the "Teachable Tidbit" units and activities, which exemplify active learning, backward design, assessment, and diversity.   


Active Learning

Active learning aims to move away from the traditional lecture model and get students engaged in the learning process.  A goal of active learning is to develop skills needed upon graduation, no matter the student’s field.  In an active learning classroom, students may participate in more group work than a traditional lecture and are guided in their learning through activities and learning tasks. This looks very different when compared to the more traditional listening and note-taking that is most often observed during classical lecture.  Several studies conducted over the past decade have shown that active learning leads to an increase in learning gains (Freeman et al., 2014; Knight and Wood, 2005).  The Freeman et al (2014) study concluded that active learning lead to improvement on exams, increasing students’ grades by half a letter, and students were 1.5 times more likely to fail the course when taught by the traditional form of lecturing.   Knight and Wood (2005) compared a developmental biology class taught with traditional lecture versus a more interactive class and saw that test scores were 9% higher and learning gains increased by 16%. 


                                                                                               An Example Resource that Incorporates Active Learning...


“Of Mice and Methyl Groups Teachable Tidbit (Epigenetics)” demonstrates active learning by using pipe cleaners to model chromosomes to help students through mitosis and meiosis worksheets.






Knight and Wood (2005) examined how active learning improves learning gains.  Some might confuse evaluation and assessment, though assessment is more than simply grades.  In the context of scientific teaching, assessment is what helps the learning environment to evolve.  There are two types of assessment, formative and summative.  Formative assessment helps both students and instructors, as it involves monitoring how well students are learning as the learning occurs.  This is done intentionally and consistently in an active learning classroom instead of waiting four weeks for the test.  Summative assessment, on the other hand, could be an exam, paper, large project or any other culminating exercise. Normally these are higher stakes tasks where student learning is measured against other students or some benchmark.  Continued formative assessment (with effective feedback) allows students to better monitor their learning progress and allows instructors to understand where the class stands. This helps to plan the next class, and ultimately helps students perform better on the summative assessments. 


                                                                                              An Example Resource that Effectively Integrates Assessment...



In “Teachable Tidbit: Photosynthesis for Non-Majors”, clickers are used as a formative assessment tool to help students and instructors determine if students are achieving the learning goals.





Backward Design

Instructors who follow the scientific teaching model develop their activities using backward design.  Instead of just assigning activities because the instructor likes them, backward design helps instructors identify the behaviors and competencies they expect their students to develop in the course. They then work backwards in an attempt to better align the instruction they plan with what they desire the students to learn.  This also helps instructors determine what activities need to be improved upon in the future for the students to better achieve the learning goals. 

Establishing the learning goals is the first step in building a teachable unit.  After determining learning goals, the next step is to determine the learning outcome(s), which are behaviors and skills that, if achieved or developed, should support mastery of the stated learning goals.   The student’s progression toward the learning goals and outcomes must be assessed in some measureable way. In this approach, activities are designed to achieve the learning goals with the learning objectives and assessment methods in mind. 


                                                                                       An Example Resource that Demonstrates the Backward Design Process...


The learning goals for the “Genomics and Genetically Modified Organisms Teachable Tidbit” are as follows:

Students will learn...

the definition of a GMO
​- how a GMO is made
​- the pros and cons of GMOs
- that information stored in DNA is expressed as proteins
- that alteration of a single gene or molecule in a signaling network may impact cells, tissues, or the whole organism
​- the different methods of horizontal gene transfer

Building upon the learning goals, the learning outcomes were written next:

Students will be able to...

- predict new trait of organisms that are transfected with plasmids
- explain how plasmids are constructed
- describe what a GMO is
- evaluate effects of introducing new genes to organisms
- discuss pros and cons of GMOs
- identify regulatory elements important for gene expression
- communicate the relationship between genotype and phenotype
- propose experiments to test whether a plant is a GMO or not
- describe two different mechanisms of acquired resistance in weeds

Based upon these desired outcomes, an activity is planned that, among other strategies, utilizes think-pair-share, which helps students learn how plasmids are constructed, thereby helping students achieve the learning goal of understanding how GMOs are made.  The discussion within the pair or whole class assesses how well the students can explain how a plasmid is constructed.






When students have the opportunity to complete different types of activities, students with diverse strengths may succeed.  When the term diversity is mentioned people automatically think of race and gender, but it is much more than that.  Diversity involves everything that an individual student brings into a classroom and how they differ from other students.  Thing such as major, background, age, interests, religion, gender identity, and how students learn best all contribute to diversity.  Diverse collaborative groups can often achieve greater success because each member can offer a different part of the solution to the problem.


                                                                                          An Example Resource that Addresses Diversity...




“Genetic Modification Teachable Tidbit: A Revolutionary Technique (CRISPR)” supports diverse learners by having multiple instruments (presentation, group activities, etc.) that facilitate learning while also including a discussion on the positives and negatives of genetic engineering, which promotes consideration of different viewpoints that students may hold.






Literature Cited:
Freeman, S., Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M., Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS, 111(23); 8410-8415.
Knight, J.K., Wood, W.B. (2005). Teaching More by Lecturing Less. CBE - Life Sciences Education, 4(4); 298-310.